In an information age where yesterday’s content seems like a year ago, discussing an event 6 months in the past is like visiting our grandparents’ generation. Especially when it’s a musical release. I know, what I’m about to do is a little extreme. But it’s not like Erykah Badu isn’t already a part of every audiophile’s listening history, and the more recent that history is the better. But You Cain’t Use My Phone dropped as a mixtape back in November 2015–or maybe December, who knows–but since it was ahead of its time, maybe summer ’16 is a better time to talk about it.
Sometimes you can distinguish the wannabes from the real recording artists by observing who starts to ‘phone it in’ once they’re 5 or 10 years deep in their career. Ms. Badu, however, has never stopped reinventing herself. She debuted in the 90s as a cosmic queen of neo-soul and afrocentrism at a time when many were trying to fill that exact niche. Despite the exploding market, her throne went unchallenged. In fact, Erykah Badu is among the realest artists we’ve ever seen in the entertainment industry. Her funky, magnetic grooves of the 90s, like “On & On” and “Bag Lady”, have an aching simplicity to them, almost as though they happened by themselves. I dare anyone to try and imagine millennial hip-hop or R&B without her seminal Baduizm. It’s impossible!
Fast forward to the present: a time where phone booths are nothing more than convenient places for a midnight hot-box and cell phones have become the new totem object in the twitter-finger hands of humanity. If you don’t have a phone, who the hell are you? A frightening thought, I know. Remember those old curly telephone cords you’d wrap around your finger? They still exist, it’s just that now they’re invisible and connected to our belly buttons like umbilical cords. So Erykah Badu decided to grace us with another visit from her distant, personal planetary system to record a mixtape in which every song is telephone-themed, just to show us how deep down the rabbit-hole we’ve gone.
There are several surprises along the way. First of all, Badu-heads will recognize the mixtape title as that stirring, punch-in-the-gut line from her classic “Call Tyrone”, in which she chides her reprobate scrub boyfriend for mooching off her success before urging him to gather his things and call the homies to help him move out. Pure awesomeness. By now I’m sure you’ve heard how Erykah covered Drake’s hit “Hotline Bling”, and in this writer’s estimation when you hear HER version it makes you forget there was ever an original. The break where she whispers “2-1-4, WITNESS!” and then the beat drops back in? Oh, man! But what really got me was the fact that Erykah did an Usher song…that’s right, remember that ride-out party jam ‘U Don’t Have To Call’ off the 8701 album (written by The Neptunes, actually)? Yep, and she does a wonky funhouse interpretation of it that she caps off with “It’s Okkkk, squirrel!” Baduizm, indeed.
The coolest thing about Erykah, perhaps, is that despite her status as neo-soul royalty, she’s never taken herself that seriously, nor has she bought into her own hype. Her social media personality is playful, irreverent and totally transparent. She’d probably shower you with ridicule if you even attempted addressing her as a pop goddess. Which is what qualifies her to make the teasing, satirical comment on the many typologies of human screen-addiction that But You Cain’t Use My Phone in effect is. We’ve become blind to how seriously we take our updated gadgetry and assorted thingamadoodles, how we let them get in the way of seeing eachother offscreen, and we needed to be called out for it by someone who has absorbed the mantra of “Know Thyself”. Every song is saturated with swirling digital beeps, ringtones, automated messages and sounds like the one Siri makes when you have a question. Hey y’all, this is us!
I love that Erykah has conveyed this message using today’s familiar, automa-pop templates, molding them into a refreshingly listenable form of contemporary pop-soul that won’t burden you with guilt for having enjoyed it. Music heads know what I’m talking about! I also like that she has a guy who sounds exactly like Drake who actually isn’t Drake do two separate cameos on the mixtape. The *Insert Drake placeholder here* esthetic only adds to the smug and sophisticated satire of the collection. Thankfully she has the real Andre 3000 on for a song too, but besides that my favorite Badu moment on here comes in the trancelike anthem “Phone Down” when she croons “I can make you put your phone down/You won’t text no one when you wit me” and then adds “I’ll cut mines off, too”.
I downloaded this mixtape on my iPhone after last Christmas, and you know what, Ms. Badu? I still can’t put my phone down! If we’re lucky, this Dallas soul maven (and midwife) will continue to show us what being a futuristic human really looks like…if anyone decides to listen.