Happy Sweet 16, Mama’s Gun
Today is November 21st, and it’s the 16th anniversary of one of the greatest albums of the last 25 years, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. The album represents the apex of the late ‘90s/early 2000s Neo-Soul movement and a towering achievement in black music.
Coming off the heels of her landmark debut album Baduizm three years earlier, Badu was primed for a transition in sound, and transition she made. The mellow, bass heavy production that had come to mark her first project evolved into a more sprawling and ambitious creation. Themes of Afrocentricity and black womanhood remained in tact, while expanding subject matter to include topics like anger, self-esteem, police brutality, and heart break.
The record opens with a bang on the first cut, Penitentiary Philosophy, an ode to black feminine rage. The song starts with a flurry of whispers that transition into a building snare before hitting a funky guitar and full on drumming, letting listeners know Miss Erykah ain’t playin around. Not letting up on the following track, the catchy Didn’t Cha Know features production from the legendary J.Dilla, with a memorable beat that both makes your head sway while effectively getting across themes of indecisiveness and trying to find one’s way.
Mama’s Gun hums along from beginning to end, each track transitioning to the next effortlessly, with no filler material. On Cleva, she pleads
“But I’m clever when I bust a rhyme
I’m cleva always on ya’ mind
She’s cleva and I really wanna grow
But why come I’m the last to know?
Badu perfectly strikes a contradictory tone of posturing and insecurity, before joyously concluding that “I’m alright with me” repeatedly, with each declaration ringing more true than the last. There’s A.D. 2000, a haunting and beautiful tribute to Amadou Diallo, a 23 year old black man that was killed by the NYPD in February of 1999, with backing vocals from Betty Wright. Then there’s Green Eyes, a ten minute ballad broken up into three suites, in which Badu unsuccessfully attempts to convince a former lover who has found someone else (presumably Andre 3000) that her “eyes are green cause she eats a lot of vegetables, before coming clean about feelings of jealously, and the pain of trying to move on.
Contributors to the project read like a who’s who of Neo-Soul, a genre that had really taken off around that time. Members of the Soulquarians collective Questlove, J.Dilla, Pino Palladino, and James Poyser helped shape the sound of the album, with old timers Roy Hargrove and Jack DeJohnette lending their talents as well.
It’s been sixteen years since the release of Mama’s Gun and perhaps it’s greatest feature is it’s staying power. No matter the time or place, the record continues to sound fresh, with a number of wrinkles after each listen. “How good it is,” Badu bellows on the gorgeously contemplative Orange Moon. Indeed.