Nearly four years after she busted out of town and broke big-time, Erykah Badu returns--unbowed, unbroken, and somehow, unchanged. It seems the revolution she began in February 1997, when Baduizm sold in the millions and "On & On" played on and on every time you switched on MTV, has yet to take hold of the revolutionary. When you're three albums into a career and Album Two is a live redo of Album One while Album Three contains a redo of the Hit Single from Album One, you're in trouble. So this is what writer's block sounds like. The "definitive" (so says the Motown bio) has become the derivative, and it makes little difference that Badu is self-plagiarizing; the last thing the world needs is a third version of "On & On," especially when it ain't as good as the first, uh, two.
Then you've got to appreciate the difficulty of her position: Three years ago, she was the lone funk soul (earth) mother, Billie Holiday by way of Stevie Wonder by way of D'Angelo by way of every soul record made in the 1970s. She was it only a moment ago--the high priestess of incense soul, a role model to little girls and grown women who idolized the sound and embraced the look. The debut was so light to the touch, you wanted to date it; it soothed the soul, warmed the heart, quickened the pulse. Baduizm embraced the entirety of black music's history and still came out sounding so wonderfully pop. But now that she's part of the Motown family, home to the artists who most influenced Badu, she's but one of a dozen women stirring the soul for audiences who light their bongs with hip-hop torch songs. Hate to mention it, but Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and a whole bunch of other chicks with discs sitting in the to-listen-to pile sort of render Badu a moot point at this late date. (And this isn't even counting Lauryn Hill, whose album I dug...till I listened to it, anyway.)
Badu tries to get funky ("Ya got sugar on your pita," she coos, "but your nigga thinks I'm sweeter"), but nothing comes between me and my Macy; "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" is a better turn-on, and come to think of it, Scott's "Gettin' in the Way" is a better kiss-off than anything Badu has to offer. Maybe she should have spent less time guesting on everyone else's joints (Guru, The Roots, One Life to Live) and popping up on every other soundtrack (Hav Plenty, Bamboozled...and Blues Brothers 2000, good God) and spent more time, oh, making movies (have you seen her in The Cider House Rules?). Mama's Gun isn't a bad record; it's just not much of a record at all--more like one loooooong groove that turns into one loooooong song. There's no release and no tension, only slack grooves that made the second half of the disc seem to last forever. Then, longer.
The album's opening cut, "Penitentiary Philosophy," is a tease, Sly and the Angie Stone; it builds from muffled, chatting whispers into a full-throated holler, until the clavinet and Rhodes pump up the volume and it sounds like there's a riot going on. It hints at a direction the record never takes, rough and tough, and it's frustrating--so much wasted potential. But maybe that's because Badu doesn't have terribly much to say; her short stories have become short sentences. Even the disc's second cut, "Didn't Cha Know," seems to wave the white flag of surrender: "I'm trying to decide which way to go/Think I made a wrong turn back there/Somewhere." A dozen listens in, and Mama's Gun doesn't pack the same soft punch of its studio predecessor. Which is a shame, since she's trying, dang it, to offer up something meaningful for these mediocre times--letting the girls know it's OK to go plain and get old ("Cleva," which isn't for long) or letting them in on the dark secrets of growing up ("...& On," in which Badu recalls getting her period and those childhood days when she felt "inferior"). Then you get to the part about how love will save the bag lady and how Erykah's eyes are green because she eats a lot of vegetables, and it's time to toss out Mama's Gun and reload.