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.

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Normani in 2023
Normani attends Elle's Women In Hollywood event in 2023.

Photo: MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images

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Breaking Down Normani's Journey To 'Dopamine': How Her Debut Album Showcases Resilience & Star Power

The wait for Normani's first album, 'Dopamine,' is officially over. Upon the album's arrival, reflect on all of the major moments that have happened in the six years since she made her solo debut.

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2024 - 09:39 pm

All eyes are on Normani as her long-awaited debut album, Dopamine, arrives to eager fans and critics alike on June 14. It arrives more than six years after Normani made her solo debut post-Fifth Harmony — and though she has released a number of singles since, even her most loyal listeners were bewildered by the delay of her debut project. But the 28-year-old has been strategic in building something timeless.

"I took the time to learn and develop my sound. I wanted to be different and create a body of work that's unique but still fresh and exciting," Normani tells GRAMMY.com. "There were many days of trial and error trying to perfect something that embodies who I am and the type of artist I wanted to be. I always knew that I had to trust myself even when others doubted me and questioned my hunger."

On the highly anticipated Dopamine, Normani's womanhood and artistic breadth effortlessly glides across its 13 tracks. She makes no apologies for her sexier image and music after years of "feeling safe with being seen, but not too seen," as she told Teen Vogue in 2020. That newfound confidence translates into a musical paradise that's a far cry from her Fifth Harmony days. Up until now, the world has only received Normani's talent in snippets here and there; Dopamine finally gives us the full dose.

As you dig into Dopamine, take a look at a complete breakdown of every major moment that's led to Normani's long-awaited debut project.

2018: She Re-Introduced Herself As An R&B Star

A mere month prior to Fifth Harmony's hiatus announcement, a then 21-year-old Normani teamed up with Khalid for her first-ever single as a solo act, "Love Lies." Penned for the Love, Simon soundtrack, the sultry R&B number foreshadowed Normani's imminent success outside of Fifth Harmony; not only did it crack the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it hit No. 1 on both Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 and Radio Songs charts.

At the tail end of 2018, Normani delivered another R&B jam, the hazy, slow-burning duet with 6lack, "Waves," which found success on multiple R&B charts. Though somewhat forgotten compared to "Motivation" and "Wild Side" (more on those later), "Waves" shows off Normani's vocal range as she laments over an on-again, off-again relationship.

2019: She Celebrated A Global Smash & Massive Opening Act Slot

Normani struck gold again in 2019 when she teamed up with Sam Smith for "Dancing With a Stranger," which became the most-played radio song in the world that year, according to Forbes. Sonically speaking, the disco-tinged oasis marked new territory for Normani — and it paid off in a big way as it boasts over a billion Spotify streams and remains her biggest single to date.

The singer's star continued shining bright into that summer, when she served as the opener for the North American leg of Ariana Grande's Sweetener Tour. The arena trek marked her first opportunity to show off her performing skills, and further prove her prowess as a solo act.

On the heels of the international success of "Dancing With a Stranger" and touring with Grande, Normani released her first fully solo single, "Motivation." The bubbly track presented a poppier side and offered a fun moment with its Y2K-inspired video, even igniting a viral dance challenge. But it seemingly wasn't indicative of the direction she was headed; at the time, Normani admitted to The Cut that she "didn't feel like it represented" her as an artist.

Still, "Motivation" served as a pivotal moment for Normani. It became a top 20 hit on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart, and she delivered a showstopping performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards — which even earned the title of 2019's best performance from Harper's Bazaar.

2020 & 2021: She Teamed Up With Two Of Rap's Biggest Female Stars

The next couple of years saw Normani continue linking up with several of her peers. She first joined forces with Megan Thee Stallion for the anthemic "Diamonds" — which brilliantly samples Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" — off the Birds of Prey soundtrack. Soon after, she teamed up with Megan again — this time, for a jaw-dropping cameo in the video for the chart-topping smash "WAP" with Cardi B.

"WAP" drew criticism for its sexually explicit lyrics (and equally racy video), but the message aligned perfectly with Normani's mission to champion and represent Black women in and outside of the music industry. 

"The 'WAP' video I was really, really excited to be a part of, just because I feel like we're in a time in music where women — and Black women — are really on top, which is something I feel like we haven't seen in a very, very long time," she told Teen Vogue. "Where I come from, we were all about female empowerment. The fact that I could be a part of such a special moment embracing our sexuality, in which I definitely think there's a double standard, [was exciting] to be a part of it."

In 2021, Normani took her turn with Cardi B on another fiery track, "Wild Side," which saw her return to her R&B foundation while also continuing her artistic evolution. From sampling Aaliyah's "One in a Million" to executing the intricate choreography seen in the Tanu Muino-directed video, the '90s-inspired slow jam — which closes out Dopamine — whet fans' appetite and established Normani as a force to be reckoned with in R&B and beyond.

2022: She Traversed Several Different Musical Worlds

Keeping fans on their toes, Normani veered away slightly from her signature R&B sound by incorporating synth-pop into the one-off single "Fair." The mid-tempo track put the spotlight on her vulnerability; the lyrics deal with watching a past lover move on as if you never existed.

"This one is really unique and different for me. Probably not what everyone is expecting," she said in an Instagram story ahead of the release.

A few months later, Normani dove deeper into the dance genre by lending her light and airy vocals to Calvin Harris' "New to You," a collaboration that also featured Tinashe and Offset. But she never strayed too far from her R&B stylings, as she also teamed up with childhood friend Josh Levi for a remix of his song "Don't They" that summer.

2023: She Ushered In A New Era

Though 2023 didn't see any new music from Normani, she made some business moves that indicated she was ready for a reset. That May, Normani parted ways with S10 Entertainment and Brandon Silverstein after signing a new management deal with Brandon Creed and Lydia Asrat — signifying a new chapter and much-needed change in direction. 

"The transition signified a new beginning, filled with hopes of  moving forward and getting things done that were important to me," Normani tells GRAMMY.com. "I was faced with many obstacles over the years, some that you would not believe. But through it all, my faith in God kept me aligned with what I felt was right for me."

A couple months later, Normani launched a partnership with Bose that saw her give a first preview of the assertive Dopamine track "Candy Paint." She also offered some insight to the album delays, which partially stemmed from her parents' health struggles.

"It was hard feeling misunderstood because of the lack of knowledge people had for my circumstances in real-time. I don't even know if I had the energy to explain — my emotional, spiritual and mental endurance was really tested," she explained to Dazed. "When my parents got sick, I didn't have the mental capacity to even try to be creative, but I pushed myself anyway. If it weren't for them, I probably wouldn't have, but I know it's what got them through such a tough time — they needed to see me persevere and push through and continue to move forward."

As she shared with Bose, crafting Dopamine ended up being a creative outlet for Normani and offered a sign of hope for her and her parents during their respective treatments.

"(When my mom was going through chemo) the thing that really kept her going was getting on FaceTime and being like, 'How are the sessions going?' She's always so eager to hear the new records we've been working on," she said. "And then a year later, when my dad ended up being diagnosed, he would say mid treatment, 'I'm ready for you to take over the world.'"

2024: She Completed A Hard-Fought Journey

By the beginning of 2024, even Normani couldn't help but acknowledge how long fans had been waiting for her debut LP. She facetiously launched a website called wheresthedamnalbum.com — but it actually served as the official kickoff to the album campaign.

Two months after she shared the album's title and stunning cover art on the site, Normani delivered the guitar-driven lead single "1:59" arrived, as well as a release date for Dopamine.

Despite a series of false starts and personal challenges, Dopamine is proof that Normani is as resilient as they come — and this project was well worth the wait. Opening tracks "Big Boy" and "Still" flex her swag, whereas Janet Jackson-coded tunes like "All Yours" and "Lights On" (co-written with Victoria Monét) ooze sensual vibes. While the album mostly caters to her R&B foundation, she touches on her dance music dabblings with the house-leaning"Take My Time." 

Dopamine even offered a full-circle moment for Normani, who has cited Brandy as one of her biggest musical inspirations. The R&B trailblazer lends background vocals to "Insomnia," which also features hypnotic production from Stargate

As Normani embraces her close-up, she's keenly aware that the stakes are high, but it's a moment she's been ready for all along.

"I hope [fans] see the passion and the hard work that I have put into creating something so special," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I love my fans and how they have been patiently waiting and supporting me over the years. I hope the wait was worth it for them and they are proud of what we have accomplished together."

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Lil Wayne performing at Roots Picnic 2024
Lil Wayne performs at Roots Picnic 2024.

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

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9 Lively Sets From The 2024 Roots Picnic: Jill Scott, Lil Wayne, Nas, Sexyy Red, & More

From hit-filled sets by The-Dream and Babyface to a star-studded tribute to New Orleans, the 2024 iteration of the Roots Picnic was action-packed. Check out a round-up of some of the most exciting sets here.

GRAMMYs/Jun 3, 2024 - 09:02 pm

As June kicked off over the weekend, The Roots notched another glorious celebration at West Philadelphia's Fairmount Park with the 16th annual Roots Picnic. This year's festival featured even more activations, food vendors, attendees, and lively performances.

On Saturday, June 1, the action was established from the onset. October London and Marsha Ambrosius enlivened the soul of R&B lovers, while Method Man and Redman brought out surprise guests like Chi-town spitter Common and A$AP Ferg for a showstopping outing. 

Elsewhere, rappers Smino and Sexyy Red flashed their St. Louis roots and incited fans to twerk through the aisles of the TD Pavilion. And Philly-born Jill Scott's sultry vocals made for a memorable homecoming performance during her headlining set. 

The momentum carried over to day two on Sunday, June 2, with rising stars like Shaboozey and N3WYRKLA showing the Roots Picnic crowd why their names have garnered buzz. Later in the day, rapper Wale brought his signature D.C. swag to the Presser Stage. And while Gunna's performance was shorter than planned, it still lit the fire of younger festgoers. 

Closing out the weekend was a savory tribute to New Orleans courtesy of The Roots themselves, which also starred Lil Wayne, acclaimed R&B vocalists, an illustrious jazz band, and some beloved NoLa natives. 

Read on for some of the most captivating moments and exciting sets from the 2024 Roots Picnic. 

The-Dream Serenaded On The Main Stage

The-Dream performing at Roots Picnic 2024

The-Dream | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

After years away from the bright lights of solo stardom, The-Dream made a triumphant return to the festival stage on Saturday. The GRAMMY-winning songwriter and producer played his timeless R&B hits like "Falsetto" and "Shawty Is Da S––," reminding fans of his mesmerizing voice and renowned penmanship.

His vocals melted into the sunset overlooking Fairmount Park Saturday evening. And even in moments of audio malfunctions, he was able to conjure the greatness he's displayed as a solo act. Although, it may have looked easier than it was for the Atlanta-born musician: "Oh, y'all testing me," he said jokingly. 

The-Dream slowed it down with the moodier Love vs. Money album cut "Fancy," then dug into the pop-funk jam "Fast Car" and the bouncy "Walkin' On The Moon." He takes fans on a ride through his past sexual exploits on the classic "I Luv Your Girl," and closes on a fiery note with the "Rockin' That S—." While even he acknowledged that his set wasn't perfect, it left fans hoping to see more from the artist soon. 

Smino Rocked Out With His Philly "Kousins"

Smino performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Smino | Shaun Llewellyn

Despite somewhat of a "niche" or cult-like following, Smino galvanized music lovers from all corners to the Presser Stage. The St. Louis-bred neo-soul rapper played silky jams like "No L's" and "Pro Freak" from 2022's Luv 4 Rent, then dove into the sultry records from his earlier projects.

"Klink" set the tone for the amplified showcase, with fans dancing in their seats and through the aisles. His day-one fans — or "kousins," as he lovingly refers to them — joined him on songs like the head-bopping "Z4L," and crooned across the amphitheater on the impassioned "I Deserve." 

Under Smino's musical guidance, the crowd followed without a hitch anywhere in the performance. It further proved how magnetic the "Netflix & Dusse" artist is live, and how extensive his reach has become since his 2017 debut, blkswn.

Nas Took Fans Down Memory Lane

Nas performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Nas | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

The New York and Philadelphia connection was undeniable Saturday, as legendary Queensbridge MC Nas forged the two distinctive cities for a performance that harnessed an "Illadelph State of Mind."

The "I Gave You Power" rapper played his first show in Philadelphia as a teenager, when he only had one verse under his belt: Main Source's 1991 song "Live at the BBQ." Back then, Nas admitted to underplaying the city's influence, but he knew then what he knows now — "I had to step my s— up." And he did.

The rapper played iconic songs like "Life's a B–" and "Represent" from his landmark debut Illmatic, which celebrated 30 years back in April. He even brought out Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah to add to the lyrical onslaught, and played records like "Oochie Wally" and "You Owe Me" to enliven his female fans.

Sexyy Red Incited A Twerk Fest

Sexyy Red performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Sexyy Red | Frankie Vergara

Hot-ticket rapper Sexyy Red arrived on the Presser Stage with a message: "Make America Sexyy Again." And as soon as Madam Sexyy arrived, she ignited a riot throughout the TD Pavilion aisles. Twerkers clung onto friends and grasped nearby railings to dance to strip club joints like "Bow Bow Bow (F My Baby Dad)" and "Hood Rats."

Red matched the energy and BPM-attuned twerks from her fans, which only intensified as her lyrics grew more explicit. Sexyy encouraged all of the antics with a middle finger to the sky, her tongue out, and her daring lyrics filling the air. Songs like "SkeeYee" and "Pound Town" added to the nonstop action, leaving fans in a hot sweat — and with their inner sexyy fully unlocked.

Jill Scott Delivered Some Homegrown Magic

Jill Scott performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Jill Scott (left) and Tierra Whack | Marcus McDonald

To close out night one, the Roots Picnic crowd congregated at the Park Stage for a glimpse of Philadelphia's native child, Jill Scott. The famed soulstress swooned with her fiery voice and neo-soul classics like "A Long Walk" and "The Way." Fans swayed their hips and sang to the night sky as Scott sprinkled her musical magic.

Scott, wrapped up in warm, sapphire-toned garments, was welcomed to the stage by Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle L. Parker. The newly elected official rallied the audience for a "Philly nostalgic" evening, and the GRAMMY-winning icon delivered a soaring performance that mirrored her vocal hero, Kathleen Battle. "Philadelphia, you have all of my love," Scott gushed. "I'm meant to be here tonight at this Roots Picnic."

"Jilly from Philly" invited some of the city's finest MCs to the stage for the jam session. Black Thought rapped along her side for The Roots' "You Got Me," and Tierra Whack stepped in for the premiere of her and Scott's unreleased rap song, a booming ode to North Philly. 

Fantasia & Tasha Cobbs Leonard Brought Electrifying Energy

Fantasia performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Fantasia | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

Led by the musical maestro Adam Blackstone, singers Tasha Cobbs Leonard and Fantasia set the warmness of Sunday service and their Southern flare with a "Legacy Experience." And as the title of the performance suggests, their fiery passion was a thread of musical mastery.

As fans danced across the lawn, it was just as much a moment of worship as it was a soulful jam — and only the dynamic voices of the two Southern acts could do the job. "Aren't y'all glad I took y'all there this Sunday," Blackstone said.

The sanctity of Tasha Cobbs Leonard's vocals was most potent on "Put A Praise On It," and Fantasia's power brought the house down even further with classics like "Free Yourself" and "When I See U."

"I wasn't supposed to come up here and cut. I'm trying to be cute," Fantasia joked after removing her shoes on stage. The North Carolina native's lips quivered and her hands shook in excitement, as she continued to uplift the audience — fittingly closing with a roaring rendition of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary."

Babyface Reminded Of His Icon Status

Babyface performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Babyface | Marcus McDonald

There are few artists who could dedicate a full set to their own records, or the hits they've penned for other musicians. And if you don't know how special that is, Babyface won't hesitate to remind you. "I wrote this back in 1987," he said before singing the Whispers' "Rock Steady."

Throughout the legendary R&B singer's 45-minute set, he switched between his timeless records like "Every Time I Close My Eyes" and "Keeps on Fallin'," and those shared by the very artists he's inspired — among them, Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" and "Every Little Step," 

Fans across several generations gathered to enjoy the classic jams. There was a look of awe in their eyes, as they marveled at the work and memories Babyface has created over more than four decades. 

André 3000 Offered Layers Of Creativity

Andre 3000 performing at Roots Picnic 2024

André 3000 | Marcus McDonald

Speculation over what André 3000 would bring to his Sunday night set was the buzz all weekend. Fans weren't sure if they were going to hear the "old André," or the one blowing grandiose tones from a flute on his solo debut, 2023's New Blue Sun.

The former Outkast musician went for the latter, and while some fans were dismayed by the lack of bars, hundreds stayed for the highly rhythmic set. "Welcome to New Blue Sun live," André said. The majestic chimes and flowy notes of his performance reflect a new creative outlook, and as the performance went on, there was a cloud of coolness that loomed over the amphitheater.

His artistic approach is new to many fans, but he never stopped showcasing the personality they have grown to love. After delivering a message in an indistinguishable language, he panned to the crowd with a look of deep thought and said, "I just want y'all to know, I made all that s— up." It's the kind of humor fans have admired from him for decades, and moments like those are one of many reasons they stayed to watch the nuances of the MC's set.

Lil Wayne & The Roots Gave New Orleans Its Magnolias

Trombone Shorty and Black Thought at Roots Picnic 2024

Trombone Shorty (left) and Black Thought | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

The sound of jazz trombones and the gleam of Mardi Gras colors transported West Philly to the bustling streets of New Orleans for the closing set of Roots Picnic 2024. The ode to the Big Easy featured natives like Lloyd, PJ Morton and the marvelous Trombone Shorty, all of whom helped deliver a celebratory tribute that matched the city's vibrance.

Lloyd floated to the stage singing The Roots' "Break You Off," and delved into his own catalog with "Get It Shawty" and "You." Morton soon followed with a soulful run of his R&B records, including "The Sweetest Thing" and "Please Be Good."

With anticipation on full tilt, Black Thought welcomed the festival closer to the stage with a message: "It's only right if Philly pays homage to New Orleans that we bring out Lil Wayne." And right on cue, Wayne drew a wave of cheers as he began "Mr. Carter."

Wayne strung together his biggest Billboard-charting and street hits, including "Uproar," "Hustler's Muzik" and "Fireman." The performance was a rousing cap-off to the weekend — and it clearly meant a lot to the rapper to rep his city in such grand fashion.

"This is a dream come true," Wayne said. "It's a motherf–ing honor."

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Jasmine Cephas Jones Press Photo 2024
Jasmine Cephas Jones

Photo: Lauren Desberg

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Jasmine Cephas Jones' Lifelong Journey To 'Phoenix': "It's The Album I've Always Wanted To Make"

You might know Jasmine Cephas Jones for her dual role as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the Broadway adaptation of 'Hamilton.' On her debut album, 'Phoenix,' she's ready to unmask who she is beyond the stage.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 06:17 pm

For years, Jasmine Cephas Jones never saw herself as a recording artist.

As a teen, she attended multiple meetings with producers, but nothing felt authentic. In her twenties, she went the Broadway route, securing the dual role of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the original cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. And even after she created her debut EP, Blue Bird, in 2020, Cephas Jones' future was still uncertain; the pandemic happened, and a string of hard moments left her wondering what would be next — and what would become of her music. 

Even so, her creativity was booming. She wrote and recorded an entire album's worth of music alongside seven trusty collaborators, including Blue Bird producer Zach Golden and Samora Pinderhughes, who co-wrote a track on Blue Bird and produced Phoenix. Nearly four years later, that project finally gets to see the light of day: her debut album, fittingly titled Phoenix

The 13-track LP started as a story of romance. But as Cephas Jones sat with the songs, she discovered her most fulfilling relationships were found in her family, friends, collaborations, and artwork, offering an entirely new meaning of connection and perseverance. As a result, Phoenix is a patchwork of her life, and every formative moment in her musical upbringing: It's her mother's love of Stevie Wonder's witty lyricism on "Bad Habits," her father's penchant for Prince's genre-bending production on "Fade in the Water," and her years of opera training on "Cali." As Cephas Jones puts it, it "just sounds like me."

Before Phoenix arrived on May 30, Jasmine Cephas Jones sat down with GRAMMY.com to discuss how she grew from the bluebird into the phoenix, and to revisit the moments throughout her career that cultivated into her first full-length studio album.

What does the title, Phoenix, mean to you?

I wrote this album about three and a half years ago. I rented out an Airbnb, and seven of us worked on it. We made two studios in two different rooms. I remember telling everyone that I wanted a transformation in my sound.

As an artist, everyone goes, "Well, who do you sound like?" Or, "What genre are you?" Musically, I'm just trying to sound like me.

My first EP, Blue Bird, was very melancholy. It has that blue color feeling to it. But with [Phoenix], I wanted it to have a lot of confidence. That was the only thing I said. The music could be love or breakup songs. We can write whatever it is that moves us, but it has to have some confidence in it.

Towards the end of that week-long writing group, I was like, "Wow, I really changed musically." This sounds like it has my stamp on it, but it's like a level up. That's initially why I did it.

Life happened. I went through a lot of really hard moments, and the album shifted. It became a metaphor for what was going on. For a long time, I didn't know how I was going to put out Phoenix since everything changed. I didn't know what the story would be, but in reality, it was all right there in front of me. I'm a person going through a difficult time and coming out stronger. Someone who has grown and learned.

How would you say that growth is represented throughout this album — is it in the songwriting? The visuals?

All of it! It's almost like Shakespeare, where everything is written for you. You know, you don't have to do much with Shakespeare.

I was trying to find answers to how the music represented me for so many years. Like I said, I wrote it three years ago. What am I doing putting it out when I am a completely different person? 

I knew it was the album I've always wanted to make. And honestly, now, some of the songs hit harder or mean something else. It strikes a different chord, but that is what makes music so beautiful. If it's done in the right way, with emotion and passion, it's the type of album you can listen to, no matter what decade you're in. It'll still move you, make you dance, make you cry. I'm excited to perform it and have it out because it's going to be such a great release for me.

A tour, maybe?

Yeah, yeah. In the future for sure.

When you listen to it, it's really important that you hear these incredible musicians. Samora Pinderhughes really goes in on a lot of these tracks. Beautiful outros. We've got horns on some of them.

It's an album that feels alive. I remember thinking how much I would enjoy performing it with the live instruments and a full band. That's what excites me as an artist.

The lead single, "Brighter," features Kevin Garrett. How did that come about? And why did you think that track would be the perfect song to lead the new era?

Kevin was a part of the writing camp that was there for seven days, and "Brighter" was one of my favorite songs off that album. I wanted to create a super funky beat. I got this rimshot that reminds me of some track on D'Angelo's Voodoo. It's got this kind of classic, in-the-pocket, fun moment to it. Musically, aesthetically, it was one of the songs that made my neck pop every time I would listen to it. I wanted to start the era with something that brought me so much joy.

In the music video, I'm on a horse. Then, people's flip phones blow up, and I leave the party. Eventually, I turned into a phoenix. The party represents my old life — I left to come to Los Angeles. Running into the streets and turning into a phoenix is the journey of healing and growth.

Stylistically, the music video for "Brighter" is very similar to your other single, "Baby I Can't Give You Up." Is there a connection between those two songs? Are the women in those music videos the same character?

"Baby I Can't Give You Up" is a love story, but it changed for me.

Listen, you can hear the songs and interpret them any way you want. That's what it's for. But in a music video, you see what it meant to me at that moment. Yes, it did start as a love song, but then it became a love letter to my family and friends.

I'm walking around London, which is where I was born. I'm half English, and a lot of my family lives there. I'm reminiscing through the hard times and who was there for me. Who poured me with so much love. At the end, there's a beautiful montage of my father, who passed away last year. Then, I hop on the train to my next journey.

You could say it's the same character, but she represents all the different points in my life.

Though this album is described as neo-soul and R&B, I hear influences of jazz, country, and more. How did you develop this unique fusion of genres?

I listen to so many different types of music. If you look at my saved songs on Spotify, it's Beyoncé, Solange, Radiohead, Enya, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. It's never-ending.

How I write my music… I don't really come up with a melody or lyrics first. I like to start from the beginning and be there throughout the whole process. So, I listen to the sound first, whatever it is that starts — a piano line, bassline, trumpets, or guitar. We come up with that, then the music. And that could be anything. Maybe, a chord strikes me. Like, Oh my god, I love that. Stay there.

I remember when I was 10, listening to Voodoo on my Walkman while I rode the school bus. People would be like, "What are you listening to?" It's D'Angelo. No one knew who that was because we were so young. I've always taken a different path when it comes to music. Again, it goes back to me trying to find my sound and what I like. That's really important to me. 

I have so much respect for music and musicians. That's why Prince is one of my favorite artists because he might be listed under R&B or pop, but we know he's more than that. He's his own genre. That's how I looked at this album — we didn't have to fit into any box. 

That was the beautiful thing about that writing camp was because we were like, "Whatever comes out, just let it come out." If I like it, I like it. If I don't, I don't, and we can move on or try to work with it. But I'm not trying to put anyone into a box. It's one of my favorite ways to write. I don't know how I'll go back to a regular day of writing in the studio. 

I recommend [any artist] to go somewhere, get up early in the morning, and write until like 2 or 3 a.m. Then, you do it again. It was so fulfilling to go back and forth between those two rooms. You're just leaning on each other. That journey to getting to where it is now was awesome.

How does 10-year-old Jasmine discover D'Angelo?

My parents! My mom is a jazz singer. My dad was a jazz aficionado. I grew up around a lot of musicians in my life. I was in theater because my dad was an actor, and I would go to my mom's gigs. I found out a lot through my parents. 

I also always listened to the radio. So, I would still know what's going on as a kid, but my mom had the dopest music setup in her house. She had shells and shells of records, cassette tapes, and CDs. And she had a piano with these speakers from the '80s that were amazing. She had headphones you could plug into them, so I would come home every day, do my homework, and sit in that corner for hours, going through her collection.

I went to performing arts school starting in middle school. I remember trying to figure out what to use as my audition song, and I found Stevie's Innervisions. At 11, I decided that "Living for the City" would be my audition song. I used that in middle school, at LaGuardia High School for vocal, and for the Berklee College of Music. And I got into all of them. All of that happened because I just saw and discovered on my own, which I thought was really cool.

In middle school, I sang Ella Fitzgerald's scat song, "Rockin' in Rhythm," and I remember the music teacher being like, "Wait, what? Where did you learn this?" I've always been an oddball, or whatever you want to call it. I just had a love for great music. So, when it comes to my music, I want to put out everything I've been influenced by. That's why some of the songs go on longer than usual. They'll have these amazing transitions, kind of like Earth, Wind & Fire or Prince, and that brings me joy.

You've experimented with so many different lanes, from musical theater to opera. But did you always want to try songwriting?

I didn't consider myself a songwriter for a long time because I didn't do it. As a teenager, I met with a couple of producers, and they'd always ask, "Who do you want to sound like?" It was more their project, so they wanted me to sound a certain way. Because of that, it didn't speak to me.

It wasn't until I was with Samora [that I had the freedom to express my ideas]. We wrote this song "Wild Thing" that is on my EP, Blue Bird. If I'm trying to fit somebody else's box, I'm not going to be able to write. But Samora taught me that I do have melodies and ideas for basslines — and I do have a lot to say.

Did that level of trust also introduce you to producing?

One of my favorite things to do after I finish the melodies and songwriting is sit with the producer. We go through everything. 

"Cali" started with my idea for a bassline and a horn section. So, I sat with my producer and gave them ideas and my input. If I can be there. I want to see it all through.

Does your vocal performance differ when you're auditioning and acting as a character versus your original music?

In musical theater, you're always playing a character. Whoever that character is, you're embodying that and decide what sound comes out of your mouth. On top of that, you're projecting and using your diaphragm differently because a packed theater of 1,300 people has to hear you.

When I sing my music, I get to be more vulnerable. I'm not embodying anyone but myself, so I get to experiment. In a lot of those songs, I go into the stratosphere with my head voice because in high school, I was training to be a coloratura soprano opera singer and learned how to sing crazy high in the clouds, like in my song "Cali."

It's fun to record and explore the different parts of my voice that I wouldn't normally use in a musical theater setting. All the different tones, tambours, and colors in my voice. I get to decide what I can do.

Is there a track on Phoenix that's particularly special to you?

There's an interlude called "Phoenix," and my dad is on it. Before he passed, I randomly asked, "Hey, could you send me a voicemail of what 'phoenix' means to you?" He sent me a three-minute voicemail, and we chopped it up into an interlude. He got to be a part of it, which is so beautiful.

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Aaliyah in 2001
Aaliyah in 2001.

Photo: Sal Idriss/Redferns

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8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

More than 20 years after her untimely death and 30 since her debut album, 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number,' Aaliyah's legacy lives on through female R&B artists of generations new and old. Dig into her impact, from her fearlessness to her fashion sense.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:39 pm

With worldwide sales of 32 million, five GRAMMY nominations, and more than a dozen Hot 100 hits to her name, Aaliyah achieved more in her tragically cut-short 22 years than most would several lifetimes over. And more than two decades after her untimely death, the female R&B scene is still very much indebted to her pioneering talents.

In the last few years alone, she's been namechecked by Beyoncé, sampled by SZA and Normani, and covered by Mariah the Scientist and Sinead Harnett. And that's only on a sonic level. Ella Mai and Mahalia also recreated her signature tomboyish look in their video for "What You Did," as did Jhené Aiko on " P*$$Y Fairy (OTW)." Justine Skye and Sevyn Streeter are just a few of the names who paid their respects in 2023 ABC tribute Superstar. And going further back, Aaliyah has also been cited as a major source of inspiration by Ciara, Tinashe, Nelly Furtado, and Rihanna, while Katy B and Jessie Ware even named their "Jolene"-esque duet after their musical icon.

And thanks to Aaliyah's innovative second and third studio efforts, 1996's One In A Million and 2001's Aaliyah, finally escaping from licensing limbo in 2021, those growing up in the streaming age are now discovering her supremely sultry voice, masterly interpretative skills, and array of forward-thinking hits, too. In the last three years, the likes of "Try Again" and "Are You That Somebody" have racked up more than 140 ad 170 million streams, respectively, on Spotify alone.

But why exactly does the singer nicknamed Baby Girl still have such a hold on contemporary artists, several of whom were barely out of diapers when she was busy tearing up the R&B rulebook? To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, here's a look at how the "street but sweet" star built up such an inspirational legacy.

She Knew How To Use Her Voice 

Aaliyah arrived at a time when powerhouses Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were the dominant female singers. But the New Yorker quickly proved that lung-busting multiple octaves isn't the only way to vocally impress.

Aaliyah was still capable of such acrobatics. According to producer Daryl Simmons, she would often rely on opera runs before recording to warm up her voice; Diane Warren, who worked with the star on ballad "The One I Gave My Heart To," has spoken of how she was taken aback by her versatility. But Aaliyah's signature delivery was very much "less is more." You can hear her sensual, featherlight tones in the likes of Kelela, Rochelle Jordan, and The Internet's Syd, the latter of whom has specifically hailed Aaliyah as a formative influence on her own cooler-than-cool style.

She Retained An Air Of Mystery 

Aaliyah's less-is-more approach also applied to her public profile. Perhaps due to the controversy surrounding her relationship with debut album producer R. Kelly, the singer largely preferred to let her music do the talking.

Even when she did speak to the press, she kept her cards close to her chest. And she avoided giving the more salacious outlets any further ammunition by growing up away from the spotlight. If they were looking for celebrity beefs, love triangles or stumbling out of nightclubs, they had to look elsewhere.

In the social media era where oversharing is the norm, Aaliyah's desire to keep her private life entirely private now seems both admirable and practically impossible. But there are still several artists who've recognized there's a power in retaining a sense of mystery. Just look at Sault, the enigmatic collective said to be fronted by the Aaliyah-esque Cleo Sol, who've released 11 albums and evenperformed live without officially revealing their true identities.

She Was A Triple Threat 

Triple threats are par for the course these days. From Beyoncé and Rihanna to Brandy and Nicki Minaj, almost every female R&B star now seems determined to show they can pull off singing, dancing and acting — and, in the case of Jennifer Lopez's recent passion project, all at the same time. But Aaliyah was one of the first to showcase such impressive versatility.

In 2000 thriller Romeo Must Die, she stole the show from Jet Li as the daughter of a crime lord who refuses to get drawn into his dangerous underworld. And thanks to an inventive blend of wirework and futuristic choreography, she was equally spellbinding in the video for tie-in single "Try Again." 

Meanwhile, her slithery performance as the titular bloodsucker was by far the standout in 2001 horror Queen of the Damned. Having landed key roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Sparkle shortly before her untimely death, Aaliyah's movie career would undoubtedly have ascended to the same lofty heights as her musical.

She Wasn't Afraid To Take Control 

Don't be fooled by Aaliyah's softly spoken vocals and coy demeanor. The star was never afraid to tell it like it is. Just ask A&R executive Jeff Sledge, who guided her early days with Jive Records. "She was shy but when she would speak, you could tell she was a real artist," he told The Guardian in 2021. "She had her ideas of what she wanted to do and say — she wasn't a puppet."

Although her talents lay as a performer/interpreter rather than a songwriter/producer, Aaliyah continued to exert creative control throughout her discography. While promoting sophomore One In A Million, she told MTV, "I was very confident in my convictions and what I wanted this time around." 

It's a mindset reflected across her lyrical themes, too. On "If Your Girl Only Knew," she hits back at a player whose attention she's unwillingly caught, while on "Are You That Somebody," she insists on keeping her new beau a secret until he proves his worth.

She Helped Launch Missy Elliott's Career 

Although Missy Elliott had started to make waves in the music industry — firstly in short-lived girlband Sista, and then as writer/producer for Jodeci and Aaron Hall — it was her partnership with Timbaland and Aaliyah on 1996's One In A Million where she truly established herself as an R&B game-changer. Elliott co-penned nine tracks, including the singles "Hot Like Fire," "4 Page Letter" and "If Your Girl Only Knew," her sensual melodic hooks the perfect foil for Timbaland's innovative beats.

By the time their crowning glory, "Are You That Somebody," dropped in 1998, Elliott had become a star in her own right: maintaining the synergy, her debut album, 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, also boasted a guest appearance from Aaliyah. But as Elliott told Entertainment Weekly in a tribute to Aaliyah after her passing, their connection went far beyond the studio: "It was more of a family vibe than just work. We could tell each other anything." Over the next few years, both established (Whitney, Mariah) and emerging (702, Tweet) female talent would follow Aaliyah's lead by utilizing Elliott's production skills.

She Gave The Youth A Voice 

From SWV and En Vogue to Brownstone and Jade, the mid-'90s R&B scene was dominated by ladies well into adulthood. Aaliyah, however, was just 15 when debut Age Ain't Nothing But A Number hit the shelves. Subsequently, a generation of young girls immediately latched on to who they saw as a kindred spirit.

Although Aaliyah always sounded more mature than her years, her debut often reads like a schoolgirl's diary entry. (She even opens the title track by noting one: "May 5, 1993/ Aaliyah's diary/ Got it," goes the often-omitted intro.) Songs about crushes, hanging out with her friends, and partying on the weekend certainly reflected the teenage experience with authenticity (Aaliyah was still attending Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts).

What's more, "Young Nation" essentially finds her spearheading a new youth movement, "keeping it smooth with a jazz attitude.""There were so many messages in her songs that guided me and became the soundtrack to my childhood," British singer Kara Marni told The Guardian, proving that Aaliyah's generational influence extended far beyond her homeland.

She Had A Timeless Sense Of Style 

"There doesn't seem to be a current streetwear trend that Aaliyah didn't sport first," Vogue's fashion editor Janelle Okwodu recently claimed, no doubt referring to everything from bandanas and baggy jeans to sports jerseys and ski hats. From the moment she first graced MTV in overalls, a tracksuit and the chunkiest of leather vests in "Back & Forth," the New Yorker made it crystal clear she wasn't interested in appealing solely to the male gaze.

Aaliyah could dress up for the occasion; see the Roberto Cavalli ballgown she wore to the 2000 VMAs. But her sense of style always leaned more toward the casual and tomboyish end of the spectrum, empowering the next generation of R&B performers to wear exactly what they wanted. British singer Nao was one such follower of her fashion: "There was a part of Aaliyah that made me feel comfortable in rolling out in my denim trousers or in an oversized jumper and knowing that my music can be enough."

She Proved Female R&B Could Think Outside The Box 

TLC's "No Scrubs," Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Amerie's "1 Thing." Think of the most innovative R&B singles of the pre-streaming era and it's likely a female act is responsible. And thanks to a sonic palette that still sounds like it's been sent from the future, Aaliyah undeniably paved the way.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number first established her innovative ways, her mellifluous vocals gliding across Timbaland's progressive beats and bank of avant-garde sound effects. But it was 2001's eponymous LP that truly pushed the genre into various weird and wonderful directions, from the snake-charming classical sample on "We Need A Resolution," to the warped Nine Inch Nails-esque guitars on "What If," to the squelchy sci-fi funk of "Try Again." 

Even when she went classic, as on gorgeous slow jam, "I Care 4 U," she practically invented alternative R&B. Musical boundaries might now be a thing of the past, but in the early '00s, Aaliyah was one of the few breaking them down.

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