meta-scriptDidn't Cha Know?: 20 Years of Erykah Badu's 'Mama's Gun' | GRAMMY.com
Erykah Badu in 2000

Erykah Badu in 2000

Photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

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Didn't Cha Know?: 20 Years of Erykah Badu's 'Mama's Gun'

Released in November 2000, the Queen of Neo-Soul's GRAMMY-nominated sophomore album was a huge step forward for her as a creator and as a leading voice within the genre

GRAMMYs/Nov 22, 2020 - 03:51 am

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.

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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.

Read: I Met Her in Philly: D'Angelo's 'Brown Sugar' Turns 25

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.

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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."

Read: The Verzuz Effect: How Swizz Beatz & Timbaland's Beat Battles Showcase Music's Past, Present And Future

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.

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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.

These Dreams Are Forever: 10 Years Of Janelle Monáe's 'The ArchAndroid'

Four members of Destiny's Child in 2000
Destiny's Child

Photo: Michael Crabtree - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

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5 Reasons Why 'The Writing's On The Wall' Is Destiny's Child's Defining Album

From its embrace of experimental R&B production and memorable music videos, to its GRAMMY-winning empowering songs, 'The Writing’s On the Wall' remains a touchstone for fans of Destiny's Child.

GRAMMYs/Jul 12, 2024 - 02:07 pm

In 1997, all-female R&B groups were thriving: TLC already had seven Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, En Vogue had numerous platinum singles, and Xscape reached No. 1 more than once. Soon, a quartet of teenagers would burst upon the scene and leave an indelible impact.

While Destiny’s Child are now canonical in the world of '90s and early aughts R&B, the group initially experienced spotty success. Their 1997 debut single, "No, No, No (Part 2)" peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was certified platinum. Yet their eponymous album, released in February 1998, only hit No. 67. Their follow up single, "With Me," also failed to set the charts ablaze. 

Destiny’s Child's underwhelming chart performances could’ve easily derailed the budding group. Fortunately, the four ambitious girls from Texas had other plans. 

Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and Le Toya Luckett were determined not to become one hit wonders, and quickly went back into the studio to record their sophomore album. Released on July 14, 1999, The Writing’s On the Wall became Destiny’s Child’s highest selling album and spawned some of their most iconic songs — one of which led to the group's first GRAMMY win. Not only did the album establish Destiny's Child as a household name, but it fine tuned the R&B girl group concept to perfection.

"We had no idea that The Writing's on the Wall would be as big a record as it was. Especially worldwide," Beyoncé said in a 2006 Guardian interview.

In celebration of the iconic album's 25th anniversary, read on for five reasons why The Writing’s On the Wall is the defining album of Destiny’s Child’s career.

Its Members Took Creative Control

On their debut album, Destiny’s Child tapped into the neo soul trend popularized by the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Maxwell — artists in their early-to-mid twenties with a maturity the teen quartet didn’t yet have. The references and creative direction clashed with the reality of the group members being so young.

"It was a neo-soul record and we were 15 years old. It was way too mature for us," Beyoncé tol the Guardian.

Heading back into the studio, the girls made sure to eradicate any misalignments and put more of themselves into their sophomore album. In an interview with MTV, the members said The Writing’s On the Wall had a fresher, more youthful vibe because "it comes from us." The quartet's fingerprints are all over the 16 track album: Each member co-wrote at least 50 percent of the album. 

"Even at the time, Beyoncé would produce a lot of their background vocals, and she was a leader even at a young age," Xscape's Kandi Burruss said in a Vice interview, reflecting on her work as a songwriter and producer on The Writing's On the Wall. This heightened presence enabled the group to develop lyrics that boldly reflected their opinions and youthful energy. In turn, The Writing's On the Wall netted a run of iconic hit singles.

Read more: Destiny's Child's Debut Album At 25: How A Neo-Soul Album From Teens Spawned R&B Legends

It Pushed R&B Forward 

Like its predecessor, The Writing’s On the Wall is very much an R&B album. However, Beyoncé's father Mathew Knowles — who still managed the group at the time — brought in producers who weren’t afraid to experiment. The result was a more commercial album that fused classic R&B with pop influences, creating a sound that was simultaneously contemporary and timeless.

Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs and Burrus (who would go on to co-write and produce TLC’s "No Scrubs") contributed to five of the album's tracks, shaping its overall sound and differentiating it from Destiny’s Child. The duo kept a few elements from the group’s debut effort, including the sing-rapping heard on "Bug A Boo" and "Hey Ladies." With syncopated beats, thumping basslines, and their knack for writing catchy hooks, Briggs and Burrus created R&B records with the perfect blend of chart-friendly accessibility.

On the Missy Elliott produced "Confessions," synthesizers, drum machines, and electronic garbling were layered to create a lush, futuristic backdrop. Further subverting the classic R&B ballad, Elliott paired what sounds like a cabasa to match Beyonce’s cadence throughout the verses which gives her laidback vocals an almost robotic feel. In addition to producing, Elliott’s velvety vocals also appear quite prominently on the chorus, adding to the track’s sonic tapestry.

GRAMMY-winner Rodney Jerkins was tapped to produce "Say My Name." The original beat Jerkins used was two-step garage, a subgenre of UK garage. No one else liked the sound, so he completely revamped the track into the GRAMMY-winning anthem we know today. Jerkins melded funk-inspired guitar and a call and response approach, then modernized them with a shimmery, polished production. This helped "Say My Name" become the group’s most listened to song on Spotify with over 840 million streams. Jerkins has even gone on record to say this is his favorite song he’s produced to date.

Read more: "Say My Name" 20 Years Later: Why The Destiny's Child Staple Is Still On Everyone's Lips

Its Music Videos Praised Black Culture

"For me, it is about amplifying the beauty in all of us," Beyoncé said in a 2019 interview with Elle when asked about the importance of representation. Even before her solo work, the importance of spotlighting Black culture was evident in Destiny's Child's music videos.

In "Bills, Bills, Bills," we see the group play the role of hair stylists in a salon which is an obvious nod to Beyoncé's mother’s longstanding relationship with all things hair. Near the end of "Bug a Boo," the members change into their version of majorette costumes and dance in front of a marching band. Majorettes and marching bands have a vibrant legacy within HBCUs; almost 20 years after this video premiered, Beyoncé revisited this very concept for her 2018 Coachella performance. 

It Delivered Mainstream Success 

The Writing’s On the Wall was a hit across the charts. The group earned their first No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 with "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Say My Name." Promotions for the latter also reinvigorated album sales and helped shift another 157,000 copies (an impressive 15 percent increase from their first-week sales). The fourth and final single, "Jumpin’, Jumpin’" was released during the summer of 2000 and became one of the most played songs on the radio that year.

Songs from the album were nominated at both the 42nd and 43rd GRAMMY Awards. Destiny’s Child took home their first golden gramophone at the 2001 GRAMMYs, winning Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for "Say My Name." The single also won Best R&B Song and  was nominated for Record Of The Year. 

With 14 nominations, Destiny’s Child remain the most nominated girl group in GRAMMY history. With worldwide sales of 13 million, The Writing’s On the Wall is also the fourth best-selling girl group album of all time.

It Expanded The Concept Of "Girl Power"

The Writing’s On the Wall was much more than catchy, radio-friendly tunes. Lyrically and in production, the album reintroduced Destiny’s Child as the architects for their own lives. The tongue-in-cheek Godfather-inspired intro tees up each song with a commandment for their partners and, at times, for themselves.

Often misconstrued as a gold digger anthem,"Bills, Bills, Bills" empowers a woman to confront a lover who's financially taking advantage of her. This is a far cry from the theme of a young woman focused on finding love — a common theme on Destiny's Child —  and puts their confidence on full display. "So Good" is a sassy, uplifting anthem which explicitly addresses haters with pointed lyrics like "For all the people ‘round us that have been negative/Look at us now/See how we live." Destiny's Child was sending a clear message: they’re going to be fine regardless of what others say. 

And when the group became tabloid fodder due to unexpected lineup changes, "So Good" took on a new meaning for persevering through hard times. While there are some songs with morally questionable lyrics — we’re looking at you ‘"Confessions" — the consistent message of embracing one’s self-worth and independence is clear. 

More Girl Group Sounds & History

Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture.
Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture

Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence 

interview

Celebrating 30 Years Of Essence Fest: How New Orleans & Multi-Generational, Diasporic Talent Create The "Super Bowl Of Culture"

Ahead of the 30th Essence Festival Of Culture, held July 4-7 in New Orleans, GRAMMY.com spoke with executives and curators of the legendary celebration of Black excellence.

GRAMMYs/Jul 2, 2024 - 03:02 pm

Every July, millions of Black people, specifically Black women, descend upon New Orleans for the Essence Festival of Culture (EFOC). Known for many years as the Essence Festival, the festival is a celebration of Black culture, community, and heritage. Since its inception in 1995 as a one-off event to commemorate the publication’s 25th anniversary, the festival has evolved into a diasporic jubilee, drawing in people of African descent from across the diaspora. 

In addition to its global presence, the festival pours millions of dollars into the local New Orleans community, which has served as the festival's home for 30 years (with the exception of 2006, when the festival was held in Houston, because of Hurricane Katrina). In 2020, the festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the annual festival continues to be one of the most sought-after and attended festivals in the United States. 

This year’s Essence Festival of Culture will be held at the Superdome from July 4-7, replete with legendary and fast-rising talents. On July 5, Birdman & Friends will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cash Money Records. The following day will feature a special performance by Charlie Wilson, while Usher will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Confessions.

Janet Jackson and Victoria Monét will headline the festival's final night, while Frankie Beverly and Maze close out the festival with the return of All-White Night. Other performers include The Roots featuring Mickey Guyton, Ari Lennox and T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Saadiq, D-Nice featuring Shelia E, Big Boi, and many more.  

Read more: Music Festivals 2024 Guide: Lineups & Dates For Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo & Much More 

EFOC has been compared to SXSW, Coachella, Austin City Limits, and other notable festivals, yet it stands out for its empowerment-centered approach. It is not simply a festival, it is a family reunion. The one festival in the United States that does not pander to or take advantage of Black audiences, but truly celebrates them and their achievements. Although music has always been an integral part of the festival’s ethos — Aretha Franklin and B.B. King performed at the first iteration — the festival excels in its multi-generational and interdisciplinary programming. On any given day, attendees can attend sessions on Black entrepreneurship, politics, mental health, and literature, as well as seminars focused on issues impacting the Black community.  

There’s a reason why the festival is referred to as the party with a purpose. For decades, it has operated as a celebratory convening place for Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Now, more than ever, spaces like EFOC are needed, as the Black community experiences an onslaught of changes — from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina and Tennessee being subject to intense government oversight, to Black women-owned venture capital firms being targeted by conservatives, and Black voting rights becoming at risk during an election year. 

Ahead of the festival’s 30th celebration, Michael Barclay, Executive Vice President of Experiential for ESSENCE Ventures and Barkue Tubman Zawolo, Chief of Staff, Talent and Diasporic Engagement for Essence Ventures, spoke to the Recording Academy about the history, legacy, and future of the Essence Festival of Culture.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Are you part of the generation that grew up with the Essence Festival of Culture? If so, how does it feel to be a part of it?

Barkue Tubman Zawolo: I'm originally from Liberia. And even being in Liberia, prior to my family moving to the U.S. in 1980, Essence was always a thing for my mom and my aunts. When we came here, fast forward to me, as an adult, [after] graduating college, I got into the music industry. I've managed artists that have gone through the Essence stages and pages in different ways.

Essence Fest has always been something that we were familiar with. I have to say, I had not really experienced Essence Fest until 2019 when Essence was actually a client. One of the things that I was doing [at that point] was integrating the Diaspora and African creatives within the festival in fashion and music.

To be in the role that I'm in right now and to be on a team with people who have been a part of Essence for a long time…. Essence seems to be ingrained in all of our fabric. [What] started as a music festival now is the Super Bowl of Culture that is the Essence Festival of Culture. To be on the team that helps bring this to life for our community is a daunting but rewarding task all in the same. 

Essence is something that I don't think anybody in our community takes lightly. Even our partners understand the value of it. We certainly understand that we serve the Essence-inverse and, and we are in service to this community. It is a huge honor to be able to be a part of the team that brings this to life and, and, and constantly hear what it means to the community globally too. 

One thing that I admired, especially about last year's festival, was GU Kickback — a music event hosted by Girls United, the publication’s Gen Z vertical. I saw a number of local artists from New Orleans, such as 504ICYGRL. ESSENCE just released a series of cover stories celebrating the 30 year relationship between the publication and New Orleans; how do you highlight the city and their history?

Michael Barclay: As somebody who's worked in experiential, creating gatherings and experiences for almost 25 years now, the venue is always important when you're trying to set the box where you are creating for your community, for your audience. New Orleans has been that backdrop for us for almost 30 years now. 

New Orleans is the convergence of our mission, our brand, in a city that is perfectly matched for that energy. New Orleans is as much a part of Essence Festival of Culture as Essence Magazine is to Essence Festival. 

It is very much a partnership that has created this cultural movement. To be more inclusive, and highlight more of those local relationships and talent is very intentional. It has been something that we have put a lot of energy and effort into over the last couple of years. 

This will be my third festival this year. I think Barkue, you started maybe a year or two before me. We're a fairly new crew that is working to help grow and reshape and solidify those relationships. Even with how we handle the management of the festival. 

Our VP of Essence Festival, Hakeem Holmes is a hometown boy from New Orleans. He's the pride and joy. They love to see him coming. He's always enlightening us on the things that we need to be focused on for the city and how we make the best partnership and make the best impact on the area.

It was intentional what you saw last year. It's intentional this year. We dedicated our entire festival edition of the magazine as a love letter to New Orleans. It's a symbiotic relationship that is one of the key reasons why this festival is the Super Bowl of Culture.  

I would love to hear about the talent aspect of the festival. Last year, Megan Thee Stallion headlined. In previous years, Beyoncé and Prince have served as headliners. What is the formula between balancing local talent, national talent and diasporic talent at the festival?

Zawolo: As we grow the festival, the intentionality becomes even more and more important. And, what we do in understanding where we are as a brand. 

We're 30 years into the festival, the brand is 55 years. What's traditionally known as the Essence Woman is now bringing her daughter. It's multi-generational. We also know that the world is as big as your cell phone, so people are now exposed to different types of content and music. 

We see the influence of Afrobeats and Caribbean music. We are intentional about making sure that every night really speaks to multiple generations, but it's anchored in a generation. It's like, who's bringing, who to the concert on Friday? Is it the daughter bringing her mama? 

It's anchored in  that younger demo, but we're going to make sure that they're going to have a collective good time there. Saturday is usually our heaviest night. We have our living legends that show up there; that really cuts across generations. This is anybody can bring anybody, but let me tell you, you're going to be able to teach each other, connect with each other with the different groupings of talent that we have.

We try to make sure that there is something that speaks to us, but that that connects with the diaspora on as many nights as possible. Sometimes it's not because they're from a different country, but because we know the music also resonates.

If you think of Janet Jackson, you can go anywhere in the world. She can check off that box, although she's not from there. You can create those ties, but we also are intentional about having Ayra Starr and Machel Montano. Last year we had Tems and Wizkid. The goal is to continue to grow what that looks like, because we are a global brand and that is our diasporic and global intent in connecting the global Black community is really important.  

We are intentionally multi-generational. We intentionally lead into where a multitude of generational communities can come together and have fun together. There is something for everybody. We have a unique opportunity with Essence as the brand grows to be able to not only speak to what they want to call the aunties, I call the punties. I also think that this is where we get to educate the next generation on where we're coming from. We also get to learn from them on where they are and where they want to go. 

What a beautiful way to kind of tie all of these connections. Last year, the festival celebrated 50 years of hip-hop; this year you're celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival. What is the intention behind this year’s music programming?

Zawolo: Paying homage to people who had done some historical things on our stages. We have Janet [Jackson] back. People are like, “Oh, we saw Janet two years ago,” but Janet is also one of the highest sellers in the festival's history. 

If we're going to celebrate, let's celebrate, because we know Janet never disappoints. We also want to lean into some of the [older] talent, like Charlie Wilson, Uncle Charlie. He's graced that stage so many times, but yet it's still very relevant. Using this moment to reignite things that we've done in the past and bring them back to life that we know the audience missed.

Frankie Beverly, who is going to come, this is probably going to really be his last performance. The passing of the torch. This year was about having to be intentional about what other milestones are happening that are important to this culture. Cash Money is also celebrating 30 years. Who better, right?  

Essence has been in New Orleans for 30 years. Cash Money and crew are from New Orleans. Juvenile just got the key to the city from the mayor. We want to honor and celebrate him, but we also want to recognize the influence that this group of very creative, entrepreneurial, rappers and artists have had on culture, because there was a time where we all were backing that ass up. 

Making sure we highlighted milestones, connecting with people who have historically been a part of making history with us, introducing some new ones — that's what we have to do. We have to set up now for the next 30 years. We want to go to the soul of what appeals to our audience, and we're really all about good music.  

I think the 30th year just continues to do what we do. As we look to grow and connect demos, Megan Thee Stallion is a very viable option because again, the daughter now is going to bring the mama. Intergenerational diasporic and connecting demos, I think that only happens at the Superdome. That's also happening in the convention center, which I believe is honestly the soul of the festival. 

What are your hopes and aspirations for the next 30 years of the Essence Festival of Culture? Will Essence Fest always be in New Orleans? Are we going to have an Essence Fest in Lagos, Nigeria?

Barclay: Being on this side of [EFOC], seeing the true impact of the festival and how it impacts the communities, how it impacts the folks that come to New Orleans, and now, because we've expanded to our virtual audience, the 1.7 million that are viewing around the world, my hope for the festival is that we continue to show up where our community needs us.

We're going to be in New Orleans. We're going to be in our official world as we call it. If you can't make it to New Orleans, you can tune into Essence.com and you can see what's going on there. We are creating virtual experiences, AR experiences, VR experiences, all those things, so really keeping up with the way that people continue to connect with each other, whether they're physically in the same place or halfway across the world.

I think that type of innovation is what I want to continue to see us do and allow us to create that joy that we generate in New Orleans and wherever it's needed for our community.

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Omar Apollo Embraces Heartbreak On 'God Said No'
Omar Apollo

Photo: Aitor Laspiur

interview

Omar Apollo Embraces Heartbreak And Enters His "Zaddy" Era On 'God Said No'

Alongside producer Teo Halm, Omar Apollo discusses creating 'God Said No' in London, the role of poetry in the writing process, and eventually finding comfort in the record's "proof of pain."

GRAMMYs/Jun 27, 2024 - 01:21 pm

"Honestly, I feel like a zaddy," Omar Apollo says with a roguish grin, "because I'm 6'5" so, like, you can run up in my arms and stay there, you know what I mean?"

As a bonafide R&B sensation and one of the internet’s favorite boyfriends, Apollo is likely used to the labels, attention and online swooning that come with modern fame. But in this instance, there’s a valid reason for asking about his particular brand of "zaddyhood": he’s been turned into a Bratz doll.

In the middle of June, the popular toy company blasted  a video to its nearly 5 million social media followers showing off the singer as a real-life Bratz Boy — the plastic version draped in a long fur coat (shirtless, naturally), with a blinged-out cross necklace and matching silver earrings as he belts out his 2023 single "3 Boys" from a smoke-covered stage.

The video, which was captioned "Zaddy coded," promptly went viral, helped along by an amused Apollo reposting the clip to his own Instagram Story. "It was so funny," he adds. "And it's so accurate; that's literally how my shows go. It made me look so glamorous, I loved it."

The unexpected viral moment came with rather auspicious timing, considering Apollo is prepping for the release of his hotly anticipated sophomore album. God Said No arrives June 28 via Warner Records.

In fact, the star is so busy with the roll-out that, on the afternoon of our interview, he’s FaceTiming from the back of a car. The day prior, he’d filmed the music video for "Done With You," the album’s next single. Now he’s headed to the airport to jet off to Paris, where he’ll be photographed front row at the LOEWE SS25 men’s runway show in between Sabrina Carpenter and Mustafa — the latter of whom is one of the few collaborators featured on God Said No

Apollo’s trusted co-writer and producer, Teo Halm, is also joining the conversation from his home studio in L.A. In between amassing credits for Beyoncé (The Lion King: The Gift), Rosalía and J Balvin (the Latin GRAMMY-winning "Con Altura"), SZA ("Notice Me" and "Open Arms" featuring Travis Scott) and others, the 25-year-old virtuoso behind the boards had teamed up with Apollo on multiple occasions. Notably, the two collabed on "Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All)," which helped Apollo score his nomination for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs

In the wake of that triumph, Apollo doubled down on their creative chemistry by asking Halm to executive produce God Said No. (The producer is also quick to second his pal’s magnetic mystique: "Don't get it twisted, he's zaddy, for sure.") 

Apollo bares his soul like never before across the album’s 14 tracks,  as he processes the bitter end of a two-year relationship with an unnamed paramour. The resulting portrait of heartbreak is a new level of emotional exposure for a singer already known for his unguarded vulnerability and naked candor. (He commissioned artist Doron Langberg to paint a revealing portrait of him for the cover of his 2023 EP Live For Me, and unapologetically included a painting of his erect penis as the back cover of the vinyl release.) 

On lead single "Spite," he’s pulled between longing and resentment in the wake of the break-up over a bouncing guitar riff. Second single "Dispose of Me" finds Apollo heartsick and feeling abandoned as he laments, "It don’t matter if it’s 25 years, 25 months/ It don’t matter if it’s 25 days, it was real love/ We got too much history/ So don’t just dispose of me." 

Elsewhere, the singer offers the stunning admission that "I would’ve married you" on album cut "Life’s Unfair." Then, on the very next song — the bumping, braggadocious "Against Me" — Apollo grapples with the reality that he’s been permanently altered by the love affair while on the prowl for a rebound. "I cannot act like I’m average/ You know that I am the baddest bitch," he proclaims on the opening verse, only to later admit, "I’ve changed so much, but have you heard?/ I can’t move how I used to."

More Omar Apollo News & Videos

Given the personal subject matter filling God Said No — not to mention the amount of acclaim he earned with Ivory — it would be understandable if Apollo felt a degree of pressure or anxiety when it came to crafting his sophomore studio set. But according to the singer, that was entirely not the case.

"I feel like I wouldn’t be able to make art if I felt pressure," he says. "Why would I be nervous about going back and making more music? If anything, I'm more excited and my mind is opened up in a whole other way and I've learned so much."

In order to throw his entire focus into the album’s creation, Apollo invited Halm to join him in London. The duo set up shop in the famous Abbey Road Studios, where the singer often spent 12- to 13-hour days attempting to exorcize his heartbreak fueled by a steady stream of Aperol spritzes and cigarettes.

The change of scenery infused the music with new sonic possibilities, like the kinetic synths and pulsating bass line that set flight to "Less of You." Apollo and Halm agree that the single was directly inspired by London’s unique energy.

"It's so funny because we were out there in London, but we weren't poppin' out at all," the Halm says. "Our London scene was really just, like, studio, food. Omar was a frickin' beast. He was hitting the gym every day…. But it was more like feeding off the culture on a day-to-day basis. Like, literally just on the walk to the studio or something as simple as getting a little coffee. I don't think that song would've happened in L.A."

Poetry played a surprisingly vital role in the album’s creation as well, with Apollo littering the studio with collections by "all of the greats," including the likes of Ocean Vuong, Victoria Chang, Philip Larkin, Alan Ginsberg, Mary Oliver and more.

"Could you imagine making films, but never watching a film?" the singer posits, turning his appreciation for the written art form into a metaphor about cinema. "Imagine if I never saw [films by] the greats, the beauty of words and language, and how it's manipulated and how it flows. So I was so inspired." 

Perhaps a natural result of consuming so much poetic prose, Apollo was also led to experiment with his own writing style. While on a day trip with his parents to the Palace of Versailles, he wrote a poem that ultimately became the soaring album highlight "Plane Trees," which sends the singer’s voice to new, shiver-inducing heights. 

"I'd been telling Teo that I wanted to challenge myself vocally and do a power ballad," he says. "But it wasn't coming and we had attempted those songs before. And I was exhausted with writing about love; I was so sick of it. I was like, Argh, I don't want to write anymore songs with this person in my mind." 

Instead, the GRAMMY nominee sat on the palace grounds with his parents, listening to his mom tell stories about her childhood spent in Mexico. He challenged himself to write about the majestic plane tree they were sitting under in order to capture the special moment. 

Back at the studio, Apollo’s dad asked Halm to simply "make a beat" and, soon enough, the singer was setting his poem to music. (Later, Mustafa’s hushed coda perfected the song’s denouement as the final piece of the puzzle.) And if Apollo’s dad is at least partially responsible for how "Plane Trees" turned out, his mom can take some credit for a different song on the album — that’s her voice, recorded beneath the same plane tree, on the outro of delicate closer "Glow." 

Both the artist and the producer ward off any lingering expectations that a happy ending will arrive by the time "Glow" fades to black, however. "The music that we make walks a tightrope of balancing beauty and tragedy," Halm says. "It's always got this optimism in it, but it's never just, like, one-stop shop happy. It's always got this inevitable pain that just life has. 

"You know, even if maybe there wasn't peace in the end for Omar, or if that wasn't his full journey with getting through that pain, I think a lot of people are dealing with broken hearts who it really is going to help," the producer continues. "I can only just hope that the music imparts leaving people with hope."

 Apollo agrees that God Said No contains a "hopeful thread," even if his perspective on the project remains achingly visceral. Did making the album help heal his broken heart? "No," he says with a sad smile on his face. "But it is proof of pain. And it’s a beautiful thing that is immortalized now, forever. 

"One day, I can look back at it and be like, Wow, what a beautiful thing I experienced. But yeah, no, it didn't help me," he says with a laugh. 

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Aaron Frazer Dives 'Into The Blue': How His New Album Goes Further Beneath The Surface Than Ever Before

The singer, songwriter and drummer with Durand Jones & the Indications discusses his new sophomore solo album. The result of many big life changes, 'Into The Blue' sees Frazer digging into a broader range of influence and emotion.

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2024 - 01:30 pm

If Aaron Frazer had not wound up singing and playing drums with the soul outfit Durand Jones & the Indications, or on his own solo records, he suspects he may have ended up working as a music history teacher.  

"My favorite classes in college were music history. Even something I knew already, like the history of rock and roll, those are songs your dad probably played, but hearing it through the lens of somebody who truly loves it and looks at you and says, ‘Isn’t this amazing?’ that stirs something up in you," says Frazer.

Unfortunately for his would-be music students, Frazer did decide to make music. He started making hip-hop beats in high school, then learned to play the drums and studied music engineering at Indiana University, where he met the musicians who would form Durand Jones & the Indications in 2012. The quintet have released three studio albums (and one live record) of R&B, soul, and disco, each of which open with a statement of political consciousness.

It was in the early days of the Indications that Frazer learned he could do more than play drums and write songs: he had an innate ability to sing in the upper-range falsetto — an extremely useful tool in soul ballads. Arguably, Frazer's delicate lead on the Indications' 2017 single "Is It Any Wonder?" helped popularize the group.

Frazer released a solo album in 2021, fittingly titled Introducing…, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.  With ample amounts of his signature falsetto, the debut is rooted in pure, sweet soul that could easily be mistaken for a recording from the '60s. Interspersed throughout his songs are bouncy bass lines, flourishes of horns, strings, organ and piano, funky guitar patterns, and backing vocals. Lyrics tell earnest stories of love, breakups, disappointment, loneliness, and joy.  

Frazer's second solo album arrives June 28.  Into The Blue features some of his trademark sweet soul sounds, and adds in inspiration from the Spaghetti Western film scores of Ennio Morricone, the lush jazz-rock recordings of David Axelrod, and late-90s hip-hop from artists like Nas and Jay-Z.

Into The Blue is a collaboration with GRAMMY-winning producer Alex Goose, known for his crate-digging samples and collaborations with artists like Brockhampton and Madlib. Goose and Frazer have a shared love of the tension that many hip-hop songs create by rigging disparate elements together. 

Similarly, Into The Blue combines cinematic string sections, breakbeats, and tambourines with driving bass lines, fuzz guitar, iPhone recordings and one-take vocals, and added a range of samples, including the '90s R&B group Hi-Five. Frazer’s love of hip-hop is evident in the beats: if you were to isolate the drumming on many of his tracks, they could easily lay the bedrock for an MC to rhyme over. 

Frazer recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about creating Into The Blue, his experiences with the Indications, working with Dan Auerbach, and his new life on the West Coast.

What inspired the new sounds you’re exploring inInto The Blue’?

There were multiple changes in my life. My relationship of five years came to an end, and I moved across the country by myself from New York to Los Angeles. 

Durand Jones and The Indications had just finished an insane year of touring. We had spent seven or 10 months on the road. No more partner, no more band, and I was in a new city where I didn’t know many people. I was heading into the unknown, literally and emotionally, that was the feeling of the album.

What sound were you aiming for?

I’m a student of so many genres of music. So sonically, I’m always on a quest to bring all my influences together seamlessly and authentically, and I believe I’ve done that. It’s rooted in classics but [sounds] contemporary. 

It’s soul music, and falsetto-driven, but with a country Western influence I’ve liked since high school, like Mississippi John Hurt, and gospel and disco, and always hip-hop. Hip-hop has been in my DNA since high school; I wanted to partner with a hip-hop producer to bring that DNA to the forefront.

How did you combine those specific musical elements?

The construction of the album took a ton of work, but I think all of the influences blend together and it really makes sense. If you listen to Ennio Morricone and David Axelrod, they both have these cinematic string arrangements and operatic vocals, but the drums are like MPC fodder — like proto hip-hop. 

With Morricone, you hear the bass and it’s heavy. You hear the grimiest timpani drum sound. That is RZA all day. In hip-hop, they rely on samples, and they end up in conversation with so many records. It’s like chutes and ladders short cuts but with a homebase of cohesion. 

How did you first get into hip-hop, and how exactly does it appeal to you?

I was probably 10 when I first heard hip-hop. In high school I started making beats on Fruity Loops. I loved Will Smith’s "Big Willie Style" and Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life." "Annie" is the softest s— ever, but he put this pocket behind it. It moved me, and lit my brain up. 

In high school I drummed for a musical production of Annie, and when we got to "Hard Knock Life," of course I started playing the Jay-Z version. The teacher was like, "Can you not do that?" 

You got into sound engineering at Indiana University. What attracted you to that work?

At that time I didn't have any sort of music theory background. I thought about majoring in percussion, but I’m not a classical music guy and I’m not a jazz drummer. I grew up listening to rock and hip-hop. Meg White and Questlove were my heroes, so I wasn’t shaped for the conservatory. I just wanted to make beats. My parents suggested I learn the practical side of things so I could get a job, so I was like okay, let me do this and figure it out

The Indications guys were classmates in the recording program. We started out making rock and roll, but we bonded over Dilla’s "Donuts," and the Jerry Butler "Just Because I Really Love You" sample pulled on our heartstrings. We geeked out on that, and then we met Durand [Jones], and that was the first time I could bring all my influences together. We were rowdy but soulful.

Is that around the same time you started singing a lot of falsetto vocals?

I discovered I could sing falsetto when I made a scratch vocal track for Durand. It was far enough removed from my own speaking voice that I could hear it as its own instrument, and it just felt like me for the first time. It’s been my signature style ever since.  

In the last few years, I’ve figured out ways to incorporate both registers of my voice. I didn't grow up singing, so it’s still an adventure to learn that instrument.

How did Durand Jones & The Indications impact your life? 

They are family. We have been through so much together. We traveled the world together. We put in so many hours on the road, and so many miles, and we got through it together. It’s not easy to tour, to get in the trenches and get in a van. Being able to grind it out together and grow together, being a part of a band that writes and produces together.

Now I think about us like the Avengers. There’s a main story line, and you create a universe around it, and everyone has their own worlds and universes. Right now I’m drumming on [keyboardist] Steve Okonsky’s jazz record, and Okonsky is playing bass on my record. I produced a record with a Durand on vocals.

It’s important to have a place you can go and learn from each other and collaborate, and also have a place to go on your own. We all are eclectic, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of interesting avenues to explore.

Dan Auerbach produced your first solo album, 'Introducing…in 2021. What did you learn from that experience? 

We were writing three or four songs a day, and we wrote the record in a week. We were blasting through songs. Dan accesses and celebrates first instinct and intuitiveness. You do two sessions a day, and you come out with a song per session.

Read more: From The Black Keys To Behind The Board: How Dan Auerbach's Production Work Ripples Through The Music Community 

On the new record, I tinkered for hours over some moments, but many moments just happened. On the song "The Fool," we used iPhone files. You can hear the drummer say "play it again," just like a demo. It had magic to it. We tracked it again, but the voice memo had a looseness to it, and I gave myself permission to use something that wasn’t perfect.  

"Perfect Stranger" was a one-take vocal. I could have auto-tuned it, but wanted it to sound like I was on the edge of tears, and about to lose it, which I was. Dan gives himself that same permission to embrace spontaneity.

You and producer Alex Goose experimented with samples on this new album. How so?

This record is fusing my childhood artistic self with the artist I’ve grown into. The first beat I ever made, I didn’t have production software. I had a CD compilation of jazz, put it in my tower computer, opened up Windows Movie Maker, dragged the audio in there and moved it around. That was one of my first experiences making my own music and looping. I wanted to bring that vibe back. One of the things that makes hip hop sound the way it does, is the tension created by rigging disparate elements together. 

Recorded with different rooms, preamps, and signals creates an amalgamation that you can’t get when everyone is playing in the same room. We recorded stuff in different places and stack those recordings on top of each other, so it feels hip hop even though it's not. When people hear this record, they might wonder if they’re hearing samples. 

What challenges popped up making this record?

When I first started, after moving to L.A., I was having trouble writing lyrics. I felt sad and heartbroken and lonely. At a certain point, a friend convinced me not to fight it, and just write about what I was feeling. As soon as I did, songs started to flow. 

I’m a private person, but audiences today expect you to share all details of your life. There’s no backstage options for artists now. It required me to be vulnerable, and remember the good things about my relationship and show people the giddiness and excitement of a new relationship. The challenges were more emotional than musical.

You’ve performed on shows like "The Tonight Show" and "CBS Saturday Morning." You have more than 4.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify. How does it feel to know your music is reaching so many people? 

It is wild. I think a lot about how lucky I am, knowing how many people in the world put out music every day on Spotify or Soundcloud or YouTube. It’s insane. I’m incredibly fortunate to reach people and talk to people about my records.

You have to work really hard and be really good but there’s also an element of luck. I try to help my bandmates and friends and also give people I don’t know a platform, tell my fans about them, and bring people on tour.

With the exception of college in the Midwest, you’ve always lived on the East Coast. How’s the West Coast treating you?

It’s definitely a cultural adjustment. I moved here because that’s where the culture lives. Soul music kind of fell by the wayside for a few decades, but now there’s a revival. The communities that kept that music precious and safe and alive and thriving were on the West Coast, from S.F. to L.A. and Phoenix, and San Antonio. That’s where this culture is alive, so I wanted to go and experience that, and see what doors open. 

I miss the subway and public transit. I miss my midnight honey turkey sandwich from the bodega, but L.A. has shown me so much love. It’s crazy to see all the lowrider, Chicano soul bands out here.

When the Indications first started, we made our music in a basement, not a bar. We weren’t entertaining people, so it was a soft, sweet soul, and it really touched a nerve. That style has exploded. It’s cool to know that we had a hand in shaping this movement.  

How Durand Jones' Debut Album 'Wait Til I Get Over' Helped Him Explore His Roots & Find Self-Acceptance