Ahead of the 20-year anniversary of Mama’s Gun, a retrospective look on why Erykah Badu’s sophomore album is better than her debut.
“Never expect anything from an artist because we like to change and grow. Music is therapy and depending on what I need, that’s what I put out. I never underestimate the audience’s ability to grow with me. It’s the labels that keep me and my audience separated.”
These were the words of a 32-year-old Erykah Badu backstage at a concert in Hamburg, Germany in 2002. It had been two years since the release of her sophomore album, Mama’s Gun, which many expected to closely resemble her landmark debut album, Baduizm, allowing her to properly capitalize on the hefty commercial heights that the project received. Despite not necessarily being a musical misstep, nor a flop, Mama’s Gun is often seen as not better than Baduizm because it didn’t surpass the commercial success of the latter, even though it is better as a creative, musical endeavor.
Baduizm was an era-defining moment that bolstered the beginnings of a new zeitgeist in music. The genius behind the album was that Badu seamlessly married purist musical traditions with contemporary sounds of the present day. It was timeless yet current; high-brow but youthful. The pairing of Badu’s distinct, jazz-inflected vocals and hip-hop sensibilities made for a refreshing and compelling new sound.
“My music is Hip-Hop,” Badu said in a 1997 interview with the Irish Times. “I just sing over the tracks, but I sing the same things that a hip hop artist would rap but with melody.”
“We don’t write to get a record deal. Some people do. If you’re true to hip-hop, you just do it because you love it,” she added.
That ethos could be seen in the unorthodox way she presented her music lyrically and sonically — from referencing the teachings of the Five Percent Nation over the boom-bap sound of “On & On” or her rap-singing delivery on “Sometimes (Mix #9)” to how she addressed themes of healing, reincarnation, oppression, and love, with songs like “Other Side of the Game” exploring the connections between Black men and women in poignant ways that went beyond the standard R&B musings on romantic relationships.
Accompanying this musical gravitas was an Afrocentric and earthy fashion sense, which would play a massive part in the marketing and promotion of Baduizm. The bohemian headwraps and gowns alongside her usage of incense and herbal tea during performances, promotional appearances and videos quickly grew to be integral parts of Badu’s persona.
This is arguably when issues began to take flight. Badu became prematurely deified with an already cemented iconography. A sound and image that was authentically her’s soon became commoditized. Her aesthetic epitomized the term “neo-soul” that, although used sparingly around the releases of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, became popularized when Baduizm gained traction. Ultimately, this led to the singer being labeled as “The Queen of Neo-Soul.”
Badu’s breakout success had ushered in a new industry mold — the avant-garde soul sista — paving the way for the likes of Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Angie Stone, India Arie, Amel Larrieux, and many others who could serve as competing foils. Her success had also put her on the radar of some of R&B’s heavyweights of the time, who were going to help make the sound she had crafted on Baduizm more accessible to broader audiences.
When Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun was in its early stages of conception, R. Kelly and Babyface had been enlisted to produce songs for the album. Although their initial involvement showed how omnipresent Badu had become, it also indicated that what she actually represented and stood for was going over people’s heads: that she aspired to be an artist with creative integrity over being a mainstream superstar. Ultimately, she turned down their offers, telling the Dallas Morning News in an interview: “I respect their music but it’s not necessarily parallel to what I do.”
It was the founding members of The Soulquarians who were parallel to her artistic endeavors, and would greatly help Badu create an album that personified raw and unadulterated liberation. Spearheaded by Questlove, J Dilla, and James Poyser, The Soulquarians represented the antithesis of what mainstream Black music was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, looking to revolutionary artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and Fela Kuti as inspiration for the several albums the collective produced between 1997 and 2003. Among them was Mama’s Gun, a project that firmly let listeners know that Badu wasn’t to be boxed into a particular sound, or bound by a PR-facilitated persona.
Released on November 21, 2000, Mama’s Gun was a more introspective and humanized effort from Badu. The Baduizm-era had positioned her as this mythical and otherworldly goddess that, at best, could be seen as aspirational, but at its worst, pretentious. Even though she was offering profound gems through her lyrics, there was a barrier present preventing her from truly connecting with her audience. With Mama’s Gun, Badu not only deconstructed the persona that became associated with her music, but also provided ammunition for the Black community, the ammunition being the food for thought she first spoke of on Baduizm‘s “Appletree.”
“…& On,” the sequel to “On & On,” is an example of that deconstruction. On the track, Badu reflects on whether her philosophies were lost in elusive symbolisms: “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you?” This is also present on “Didn’t Cha Know,” a track that shows Badu as a woman constantly seeking answers to life’s most existential questions without losing herself in the process.
But there’s also humor here, too. “Booty” is a subversive and witty play on the “Coming to you as a woman” trope, as Badu coolly bigs herself up, only to confide in the other woman that her man doesn’t deserve either of them because he’s unworthy of them both, the track a sisterhood foil to the equally funny and witty “Tyrone.”
Both “Bag Lady” and “Times A Wastin’” are calls to action. The former urges all women to practice self-love and rid themselves of the baggage preventing them from flourishing. Badu’s instruction to “Pack light” is delivered with a vocal harmony that adds to the gentleness of the sentiment. On the latter, she warns young Black boys to find direction and not let life pass them by, offering advice that begins whimsically before cutting to the point: “We’re living in a world that’s oh-so-strange. Boy, don’t let your focus change. Gotta make your money last. Learn from your past.”
“Green Eyes” is a sprawling tribute to a love that has ended, as Badu goes through moods of jealousy, denial, despair and acceptance, channeling Billie Holiday, Rachelle Ferrell, and Joe Sample to create a moving and grandiose 10-minute jazz epic that, arguably, is still one of the most ambitious songs Badu has ever made.
Sonically, Mama’s Gun was also far more adventurous than Baduizm. Opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy” was a sprawling rock and roll number recalling Prince and Sly & The Family Stone; “Didn’t Cha Know” was a J Dilla-produced groove that found the innovative producer sampling Tarika Blue’s “Dreamflower“; “Bag Lady” was a beautifully subdued mix of Baptist-church gospel, West African choral music and blues music; and “Green Eyes” was an improvisational jazz journey, the late Roy Hargrove’s trumpet acting as a call-and-response to Badu’s conflicted heartache.
For all intents and purposes, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun was another resounding success. The album was well-received by publications like The Guardian, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and had debuted at No.11 on the Billboard 200, with lead single “Bag Lady” becoming her first top 10 single on the Billboard Hot 100, as well as topping its concurrent R&B/Hip-Hop Chart for seven consecutive weeks. The album would also earn three Grammy nominations and would eventually go platinum.
Yet, when compared to Baduizm, the album’s stature in the wider pop culture pantheon was categorically palpable at the time of its release. Even Badu herself — who had considered the album “creatively better” than her previous works — had questioned the success of the album, not realizing how impactful the project was until she embarked on her Mama’s Gun World Tour.
“I worked really hard on Mama’s Gun. I really felt I had something to prove. And when it came out I was very pleased with my work. But the commercial success in the United States was not as great as I’d expected, and I was down for a little bit and doubted my power…,” Badu said in an interview with South African Sunday Times. “But when I started to tour again and saw all the people show up who knew the words, it was confirmation that the work is not always for commercial success. It’s also for spiritual upliftment.”
The Mama’s Gun World Tour was extremely pivotal in how Badu would pilot her career in later years. As the album wasn’t pre-occupied with fitting into radio formats or MTV, it suggested that the best way to experience its diverse soundscapes was a live environment.
It was during these series of dates where Badu’s true fanbase was solidified, and where she realized her true calling as an artist is being a stage performer. Looking back at her 23-year career, it explains why she has only released five studio albums and one mixtape, ample material she continues to re-interpret in unorthodox and inventive ways, as is evidenced by her dazzling quarantine shows this year.
Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun was a risk. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Badu entered the game being left of center. When the neo-soul trend began to dissipate in the mid-2000s, Erykah successfully managed to transcend it while others struggled to distance themselves from that marker and maintain their relevance. And this continued dedication to being artistically free and follow the beat of her own drum has become the heart of her legacy.
Sope Soetan is a freelance journalist from London with bylines at Pigeons and Planes, CLASH, Nataal, Wonderland, TRENCH and more. He is also 1/3 of the music/pop-culture podcast ‘Don’t Alert The Stans’. Follow him @SopeSoetan