Only when compared to the massive success of a triple platinum debut album could a platinum sophomore effort appear to be a disappointment, but such is the case for Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. Coupled with how this album established a trend of Badu’s declining commercial success with each subsequent album, the notion of Mama’s Gun as a failure draws out both the problematic nature of the Neo Soul sub-genre as well as the challenges Badu has surmounted in achieving a fruitful and remarkable career as an artist. Baduizm remains an assertive, powerful introduction to a unique artist that bristles with energy and creative branding, but Mama’s Gun survives as Badu’s lasting statement of purpose, serves as template for her following albums, and demonstrates the lasting influence of the creative collective that spawned it.
Neo Soul unfairly silos some of the best music of the last twenty years, arbitrarily differentiates it from the music that inspired it, and diverts from the flow of mainstream R&B/Soul music that was occurring around it simultaneously. At its worst, Neo Soul cursed the music it labeled with unflattering comparisons to both the artistic high points of the golden eras of 1960’s and 70’s Soul as well as the commercial successes of mainstream R&B/Soul of the day. Where the label of Neo Soul constricts with contradiction and sags with ambiguity, the title of a collective of musicians responsible for creating some of the greatest albums of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Soulquarians, proves useful in drawing the connections among these seemingly distinct works. The Soulquarians included, in addition to Badu, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, D’Angelo, Common, J Dilla, Pino Palladino, Mos Def, and others. From 1999 to 2002, the Soulquarians produced Mama’s Gun, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Electric Circus, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
Mama’s Gun and Voodoo can be viewed and as siblings of spirit and style. As products of the Soulquarians, both albums feature many of the same players and represent the collective’s creative power at its peak. Pushing past 70 minutes and right up to the limit of the standard running time for compact discs, Mama’s Gun bears the sprawling, kitchen-sink inclusivity of a classic double album. Opening with a collage of overlapping, hushed excerpts from anxiety-driven inner monologues, “Penitentiary Philosophy” launches a confident, exuberant groove that sets the album’s tone for socially conscious, wide-ranging Soul from what could be the doubts of distraction and writer’s block that confront an artist working on a follow-up to a phenomenally successful debut. “Penitentiary Philosophy” sets the precedent for the kind of funky, organic jams that Badu explores more fully on 2010’s New Amerykah: Part Two (Return of the Ankh).
Although Badu quickly distinguishes Mama’s Gun from its predecessor through providing a more diverse range of styles, wider scope of themes, and a lessened focus on her own iconography, she calls back to Baduizm on the fourth track, “...& On.” By including a direct reference to Baduizm’s breakout single “On & On” as well as the use of singing “Badu” as a kind of tone-setting motif, a signature detail of her debut, Badu provides continuity with her introduction, but places these pieces in a warmer, less self-conspicuous setting. Right in the middle of the album comes “Kiss Me on My Neck,” a dense, simmering workout that balances the seductive with the commanding for its entire running time of five and half minutes. Badu divides the song into two lyrical modes that guide stark shifts in the music’s structure. Alternating between a gently sung, straight-forward request for intimacy and an almost chant-like set of directions for the terms of this intimacy, Badu addresses the complexities of desire within a musical context that contains more mystery, beauty, and appeal than most “sexy” pop songs and rewards repeated listening, as well. “Kiss Me on My Neck” hints at the darkly experimental and thematically nuanced songs that form the heart of 2007’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War).
Exploration of Badu’s music should begin with Mama’s Gun, not end there. Sadly, like many of her peers in Neo Soul as well as her fellow members of the Soulquarians, Badu’s music has not received the attention and acclaim it deserves. Also, like her fellow Soulquarians, Badu has aimed her music not for the charts and radio broadcasts of the moment, but for the sound systems and listeners of the years to come. Badu’s mercurial, playful, and dominant personality anchors Mama’s Gun and what she accomplishes on this album has enabled her to progress as an artist like few of her peers of this era or genre. Mama’s Gun is equally deserving of a first listen as it is of a reappraisal.
- John Parsell