Erykah Badu

Nine months after her triumphant 1997 debut, Baduizm, Erykah Badu released a live album containing only two new songs. Since then, she has focused on raising the son she had with her then-boyfriend, OutKast rapper Andre "Dre" Benjamin, turned in a strong performance in Cider House Rules, moved from New York back to her native Dallas, and contributed to several movie soundtracks and albums by friends such as The Roots. But writer's block and single motherhood kept delaying her own album, and even after she finished it, she continued tinkering with the results until barely two weeks before its release. Yet Mama's Gun shows few signs of being worried over. Produced mostly by Badu, its hard New York beats underpin smooth Southern melodies, with grooves melting seamlessly into one another. As always, she gets a strong, neo-soul sound with few instruments and uses her voice to full effect. Meanwhile, her eclectic, highly visual lyrics often remain elusive even as they call for black and feminist pride (she addresses her fondness for wordplay in ". . . & On," a continuation of her first hit). The album opens with the crashing rise and fall of "Penitentiary Philosophy," which is as close to rock as she's ever come. On the funky, start-and-stop "Booty," she's preaching and teaching. On "Cleva," she insists that she be judged on brains rather than beauty. The bluesy "Bag Lady" admonishes a woman who can't let go of her emotional baggage, while "Time's a Wastin" dispenses homespun wisdom of a more universal kind. The scatting "In Love With You," her duet with Stephen Marley (Bob's son), couldn't be more buoyant, but she also catches the late-night melancholy of the jazz singer on "Orange Moon" and "Green Eyes." In short, Mama's Gun was worth the wait, sustaining a satisfyingly consistent atmosphere with remarkably diverse material.

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