They would be the reigning couple of black music if only they were still together. Erykah Badu and OutKast’s Andre 3000, who were a pair for the three years leading up to 1999, have created two of the most astounding albums of 2000: Erykah’s second studio release, Mama’s Gun, and OutKast’s Stankonia, which Andre made with his partner, Big Boi. They talk to each other on these discs: Andre in “Ms. Jackson,” apologizing for breaking Erykah’s heart and promising to be there for their son Seven’s first day of school; Erykah on Mama’s Gun‘s final song, the tortured ten-minute, three-movement breakup suite “Green Eyes.” Imagine Kurt and Courtney singing songs to each other on MTV.
When we first met the neosoul Earth Mama, in 1997, she spoke in Rakim-worthy dense poetics and sported a cloth crown pointing toward the most high. Mama’s Gun finds Erykah disrobing emotionally, shedding the self-righteousness and goddess posture that marked Baduizm. The new Erykah isn’t teaching, she’s dealing with regular-person baggage. On “Cleva,” a light, airy song about finding peace with your shortcomings, she lists a slew of faults, including her lack of natural hair: “My hair ain’t never hung down to my shoulders/And it might not grow/You never know.”
Where Baduizm was often as decipherable as hieroglyphics, the lyrics on Mama’s Gun are clearer, though no less profound: “Bring me water for these flowers growing out my mind,” she says on “Kiss Me on My Neck (Hesi).” In “. . . and On,” a sort-of sequel to Baduizm‘s “On and On,” she explains why she has changed course: “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you?” But Erykah wouldn’t be Erykah without some obfuscation: There’s very little hint that “A.D. 2000” is a song about Amadou Diallo, the West African man shot at forty-one times and killed by New York City police officers in February 1999. On the track, she grabs an acoustic guitar and takes on the voice of the slain immigrant, imagining him in heaven defiantly saying, “No, you won’t be namin’ no buildings after me.”
Mama’s Gun features a host of all-stars, including members of D’Angelo’s Soulquarian crew: Pino Palladino on bass, producer and pianist James Poyser, producer Jay Dee, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and drummer ?uestlove. There’s also veteran funkateer Roy Ayers playing vibes and a duet with Stephen Marley, but this is the Erykah show, dominated by her confessional lyrics, her luscious voice, her sweeping musical vision. She begins with the rocking “Penitentiary Philosophy” and then gets you dancing with the soul of “Didn’t Cha Know” and the James Brown-ish stanky funk of “Booty,” each song bleeding into the next, each with abrupt shifts in texture that make the whole thing this restless soul fantasia.
Midway through Mama’s Gun, the tempo slows from danceable funk to bluesy ballads like “Bag Lady” and sweet love songs like “Orange Moon,” the mood flowing from upbeat to mellow, until the concluding tour de force, “Green Eyes.” Never has Erykah been so raw and conflicted as she is here: She begins with a movement called “Denial” and a deceptively playful moment. Backed by a jaunty ragtime piano riff, she tells us her eyes are green because of good nutrition, not jealousy. But you know she’s lying when she says, “I don’t care/I swear/I’m too through with you.”
In the second and third movements, “Acceptance?” and “The Relapse,” the music is melancholy piano-driven soul — as sweet as Julie Andrews’ version of “My Favorite Things” — but Erykah is talking about confusion. “I don’t love you anymore/Yes, I do, I think,” and you barely know whether to laugh at her honesty, cry at her predicament or both. She suddenly changes gears over and over, representing the whirling dervish of post-breakup feelings, nearly crying, “You tried to trick me/Yeah,” then leaping into loud-pitched rhyme: “Makes me feel so sad and hurt inside/Feel embarrassed, so I want to hide,” and you know to cry.
She goes on, moods changing, answers not coming, just vacillating, first railing at her ex for never being a friend, then asking him to make love to her one more time. Getting hurt doesn’t equal falling out of love — at least not immediately — and Erykah has captured all the simultaneous feelings of a breakup, the deep dissonances of getting dumped. It sounds like her lowest moment as a woman, but so far it’s her zenith as an artist.