Erykah Badu in 2000
Photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Didn't Cha Know?: 20 Years of Erykah Badu's 'Mama's Gun'
Erykah Badu was a force to be reckoned with throughout the late '90s and early 2000s. Her 1997 debut album, Baduizm, which was directly influenced by Brandy's self-titled first record, was immensely confident, enjoyable and successful. Its fusion of vintage and modernized styles—R&B, soul, jazz, hip-hop and traditional African music—earned Badu comparisons to Billie Holiday, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Maxwell and Stevie Wonder. Paired with the equally efficacious Live later that year, Baduizm instantly earned the Texas singer-songwriter recognition as one of the leading forces in neo-soul.
Clearly, hopes were high for her next move; even so, her follow-up in 2000, Mama's Gun, was decidedly sleeker, edgier and more diverse, allowing Badu to fully come into her own and play a larger role in the mainstream impact of the subgenre. On Mama's Gun, she found her tangibly idiosyncratic path. Today, the album's blueprint can be heard in the sound of countless protégés: Childish Gambino, Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Janelle Monáe and Raheem DeVaughn, to name a few. That she'd eventually lean on increasingly raw, minimalist and experimental avenues on her later albums, Worldwide Underground and the two-part New Amerykah series, makes Mama's Gun that much more special.
Badu began recording Mama's Gun, her first album on Motown Records, in 1998—at Jimi Hendrix's famed Electric Lady Studios—shortly after giving birth to her first child, Seven, who she had with OutKast's André "3000" Benjamin. Along the way, she also worked with The Roots' drummer/co-frontman, Questlove, and joined his collective, The Soulquarians, a rotating group of collaborative Black musicians that also featured James Poyser, Pino Palladino, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Common and many other eminent artists. Naturally, some of them helped create Mama's Gun—as producers, players or both—alongside over a dozen other instrumentalists. It's no wonder, then, why the album features such a luscious, retro and inventive blend of funk, jazz and soul tapestries.
Lyrically, Mama's Gun is rightly considered more accessible and overtly autobiographical than Baduizm; its strong sense of poise explores personal hardships, such as her breakup with Benjamin, self-doubt and social issues, like the killing of Amadou Diallo ("A.D. 2000"). All the while, the record's mixture of condemnation and celebration keeps it resonant and fun. Much like how early Tori Amos and Ben Folds albums could be seen as approaching similar sentiments and styles from oppositely gendered perspectives, Mama's Gun has been viewed as the female counterpart to frequent collaborator D'Angelo's Voodoo, which released almost a year prior. Granted, such comparisons are almost always a bit reductive and devaluing, but there's certainly enough shared DNA between them.
Mama's Gun produced many accolades. Lead single "Bag Lady" became her first charting track on the Billboard Hot 100. The track was also nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song at the 2001 GRAMMYS; "Didn't Cha Know?," the album's follow-up single, was also nominated for the latter award one year later. Mama's Gun itself peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum by the RIAA.
Likewise, press reviews of the album were overwhelmingly favorable—if more mixed than those for Baduizm—with The Guardian, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice being among the most complimentary. Unsurprisingly, it appeared on several major "Best Of" year-end lists, too. While there were also some naysayers, such as Q and Entertainment Weekly, no publication was outright dismissive of Mama's Gun. Naturally, this led to her feeling somewhat disappointed by its reception. Still, she felt equally encouraged by how fans reacted at concerts, latter surmising that "the work is not always for commercial success. It's also for spiritual upliftment."
Two decades on, Mama's Gun remains a beacon of confessional observations and smoothly flowing stylistic changes. Opener "Penitentiary Philosophy" is an exhilarating group effort that begins cleverly with interlocking voices projecting creative and personal anxieties; from there, it explodes into a wonderfully nuanced and conceived psych/funk/soul festival beneath which Badu pushes toward unity in society and the agency of the individual. Such energies follow her onto the quirkier and more playful one-two punch of "Booty" and "Kiss Me On My Neck," as well as the multipart, multifaceted and highly ambitious closer, "Green Eyes," a breakup suite, inspired by Benjamin, whose use of horns, noirish piano, soothing percussion and sundry accentuations make it enormously poignant and seductive.
Elsewhere, the record is softer and calmer, such as with the hip and catchy "Didn't Cha Know?" and the cool-as-ice R&B composure of "My Life." Interestingly, "... & On" is the successor to Baduizm's "On & On" in form and function, with a synthesis of hip-hop, spoken word and jazz elements yielding a carefree gem of self-empowerment that evokes Stevie Wonder in its flamboyant breakdowns. His influence also shines in alternative ways on the tranquil yet sobering acoustic ballad "A.D. 2000," an evocative commentary on the ease with which Black lives are taken and then forgotten in American society. In contrast, Badu's duet with Stephen Marley, "In Love With You," is minimalist, but still uplifting.
Aside from periodic collaborations and other one-off projects, Badu has been relatively removed from the industry over the last few years. Whatever the reasons, her absence weighs heavily considering how much she accomplished beforehand. In particular, Mama's Gun was a huge step forward for her not only as a creator, but also as a leading voice within the genre. No matter which album is your favorite—they're all justifiable candidates that do things differently—it's impossible to deny what Mama's Gun did for Erykah Badu and neo-soul overall.
Twenty years since its release, Mama's Gun is just as captivating and significant today.