Tagging Erykah Badu as retro R&B or neosoul is to pigeonhole her and damn her with faint praise simultaneously and unfairly. Although Badu faithfully references any number of like-minded brothers and sisters from the vaunted heyday of '70s soul, she remains firmly rooted in the now, as contemporary as any of her less talented (and less involved) R&B peer group. Badu's debut album, 1997's Baduizm, was one of the most electrifying albums of that year, and comparisons to Billie Holiday logically accompanied its release. But in much the same way that Diana Ross subtly interpreted Holiday through her own modern-pop filter, Badu sound-checked both Holiday and Ross within an even fresher hip-hop context while retaining the foundational jazz and R&B elements that made each artist great in her own right. That unerring ability to bridge generations and genres earned Badu triple-platinum sales figures, two Grammys, and eight Soul Train awards, among many other accolades, and set the stage for her follow-up.
Mama's Gun, Badu's sophomore studio effort (her Live album appeared just months after Baduizm) finds the hip-hop chanteuse in a similar state of mind three years later. From the pure '70s Roberta Flackness of the cover art to the soul-drenched vibe that permeates the music, it's clear Badu has continued her history studies while retaining her focus on the current direction music is taking. The disc's raucous opener, "Penitentiary Philosophy" is a case in point, with its rousing Sly Stone/Curtis Mayfield soul-funk peaks counterbalanced against a quietly jazzy undercurrent that perfectly complements Badu's lyrical presentation. When she sings, "Don't you test me.../You won't win," she offers no choice but to believe her.
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Any number of high points on Mama's Gun confirm Badu's brilliance in genre gene-splicing. "... & On," her self-referential response to Baduizm's huge hit "On & On," is a glorious hip-hop/classic-soul workout that oozes seamlessly into the Miles DavismeetsMarvin Gaye R&B honey of "Cleva," while "A.D. 2000" updates Roberta Flack's pop-jazz architecture in the context of a tribute to slain immigrant Amadou Diallo. Many artists have attempted to be all things to all people, and very few have been able to deliver that difficult payload, but Badu's flawless sense of organically blending past and present musical trends without a hint of cynicism or calculation is the key to her previous and future successes across every conceivable demographic.