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The Trill Is Not Gone: Her celestial voice intact, Erykah Badu forges into funkier territory on her latest album.

Happiness Is a Warm 'Mama's Gun'

Erykah Badu brings R&B back to its juicy '70s roots on new album

By Michelle Goldberg

SOME PEOPLE who heard Erykah Badu's concert album, Live, her follow-up to 1997's Baduzim, were happily jolted by the playful sass that dripped from the kiss-off song "Tyrone." The song, which began "Boy, I'm getting tired of your shit," was a delicious, imperious goodbye to a no-good lover, and it showed another side of the ethereal soul chanteuse.

On her sublime debut, Baduzim, Badu's delicately trilling, snaky voice, her Afrocentric positivity and her old-school scatting suggested a kind of Fort Green mother goddess, exquisite but untouchable. "Tyrone" was the track that brought Badu down to earth, proving that she could play the diva as well as the angel.

Those two elements of Badu's personality swirl in and out of Mama's Gun (Motown), Badu's first new album in three years. Departing frequently from the jazzy boho vibe of Baduzim, the new album is intentionally rougher, funkier and sexier.

It's not as consistent as Baduzim, a record with hardly a single misstep. Nevertheless, Mama's Gun shows Badu evolving in fascinating directions, bringing R&B firmly back to its juicy '70s roots even while pushing the form forward artistically and politically.

Anyway, Badu's celestial voice, which contains hints of Billie Holiday's delicate trill, Roberta Flack's exultant sensuality and Nina Simone's sultry growl, is so wonderful that she's worth listening to even when her material doesn't do her singing justice.

THAT SAID, even Badu's incomparable voice can't redeem the tastelessness behind the necrophiliac ballad "In Love With You." The song was born of the same project that produced Chant Down Babylon, an album of Bob Marley "duets" with contemporary artists including Badu, who sang over Marley's "No More Trouble."

Here, she uses a track of the dead man's voice to fashion a back-and-forth love song in which she and Marley proclaim their devotion to each other. It may be intended as a tribute to the reggae legend, but there's something inherently disrespectful about any artist trying to insert herself into the work of the deceased. Besides, the song just feels fake, like someone taking her picture in a front of a photo of the Eiffel Tower and then pretending she's traveled to Paris.

Other than "In Love With You," though, the record soars, albeit with one or two false notes. It opens with a rush of energy on "Penitentiary Philosophy," a big, loping, shining song with layers of electric guitar, organ and background vocals all exploding together. With its mix of exuberant analog funk and psychedelic bombast, the song recalls Sly and the Family Stone at their peak.

It's not about prison life, as the title might suggest, but rather a call to arms to her listeners to free themselves from their mental jails. Badu's voice swings and wails, white-hot as opposed to the muted cool of Baduzim.

But while the track demonstrates Badu's range and her amazing, edgy new dynamism, its lyrics highlight the same kind of hubris that went into the making of "In Love With You." Addressing the "Brothers on the corner/Trying to make-believe," she aims to uplift, singing, "I am a warrior princess/I have come from the other sun/Gather all of your members/Unite them as one." This somewhat grating preachiness was also the only thing wrong with Baduzim, and her departure from sermonizing was part of what made "Tyrone" so thrilling.

HAPPILY, THE LOOSER, more empathetic side of Badu dominates the rest of the album. "Kiss Me on My Neck" has a powerfully erotic slink and grind that's reminiscent of Prince, while the gentle acoustic ballad "A.D. 2000" provides the kind of melancholy soul song that blankets you with warmth and makes all your problems momentarily dissipate.

Many of the best songs on Mama's Gun are distinctly empowering, but in a way that's not condescending. In a world in which even feminists flaunt their Prada and letting oneself slip physically is the ultimate sin, "Cleva" could well become a smart girl's anthem.

A spare, smooth jazz song accented by piano and vibes, "Cleva" has Badu singing about her physical imperfections with refreshing acceptance and merrily boasting of her intelligence.

Of course, anyone who's ever seen the stunning, statuesque Badu might doubt lines like "Gotta little pot in my belly/So nowadays my figure ain't so fly." What's thrilling, though, is the way the song prizes wit over winsomeness. "This is how I look without makeup/and with no bra, my ninnies sag down low," she croons without a hint of self-hatred, before breaking into the refrain, "But I'm clever when I bust a rhyme/Cleva always on ya' mind."

Perhaps even more impressive is the way Badu gives a regressive pop cliché a feminist twist on "Booty." The song starts out like an invitation to a catfight, with Badu enumerating her charms to her suitor's girlfriend. It's an old trope that's been especially prevalent in recent R&B, with tracks like Missy Elliott's vicious "You Don't Know," Toni Braxton's "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me" and Whitney Houston's "Same Script Different Cast" pitting women against each other.

"Booty" begins in a similar vein. Over a laid-back, bumpy funk track accented with spicy horn stabs, Badu's voice struts and rolls, "Your booty might be bigga/But I still can pull your nigga/But I don't want him/Ya got sugar on your pita but ya nigga thinks I'm sweeter."

When the chorus comes, though, we realize Badu is on the side of the wronged woman, not the dog who's chasing her. She sings, "I don't want him cause of what he doin' to you/And you don't need him cause he ain't ready." At the song's end, she adds, "I hope you would have done same thing for me too." Finally, some female solidarity amid pop's sexual warfare! Badu may be self-righteous at times, but more often she's just plain righteous.

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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