Liner Notes: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun -The Toast

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mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.


It is 2015, Summer, and my birthday is quickly approaching—meaning I’m more nostalgic, and therefore more maudlin, than usual. But I allow myself recollection. It’s part of my art. It has become, unintentionally, the heart of these ongoing Liner Notes—more love letters to my favorite music, and documentation of my tumbling down various wormholes connecting my present to the past, than mere music reviews.

Fifteen years ago, I lived in Washington DC. Or close enough to claim it. In actuality, I lived in Prince George’s County, in a town called Greenbelt, in Maryland—a few miles from the DC border. My nomadic life, which would occur over the next decade, began here in 2000. I can barely remember the year 2000. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet—the world had not yet undergone, if you think about it, the drastic, violent reanimation which has occurred since the towers fell. How old was I? 18? 19? Something like that—some young, stupid age, yet legally free to make a mess of things if I so wished.

With respect to music, the so-called “Neo-Soul” genre—if it can be called that in retrospect—was popular. Or gaining popularity. Regardless, the period produced some lackluster, forgettable music—warmed-over, repackaged 1970s Soul melodies and instrumentation, perhaps backed with a modern breakbeat, featuring some crooner warbling in front of a microphone. I might be describing the artist Musiq Soulchild—you can’t blame me.

Mamas Gun, released in November of 2000, was Erykah Badu’s follow-up to her 1997 debut album Baduizm. (Depending on who you ask, Baduizm could be credited as the album that began Neo-Soul. I tend to give credit to Maxwells Urban Hang Suite, released a year earlier.) I remember buying Baduizm in a store—Sam Goody?—and falling in love with Badu’s voice over music that sounded fresh, its ’70s Soul roots notwithstanding. It all sounded new to me, seemed new, caught me at a time when I fell in love for the first time, and around the time I started dabbling with writing, albeit poetry. I went back for more, buying the underrated Live, her live album, which produced the hit song “Tyrone.” I waited three years to hear a new album by Erykah.

Mamas Gun finally arrived. The difference in the sound of the album, compared to Baduizm, was immediately noticeable, yet one could also easily pick up the album’s lineage. Recorded around the same time as D’angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Mamas Gun shared a similar warmth and sound, the result of recording techniques (use of analog equipment and vintage microphones, for example) used within the “Soulquarian” collective, to which all three artists and albums belonged.

The structure of Mamas Gun—its sequencing of songs, which is an important, but often overlooked, piece of what makes a great album “great”—is deliberate and welcoming. “Penitentiary Philosophy” set the tone of the album as its opening song, and marked the immediate departure from Baduizm, as the track crescendos with an electric guitar and the heavy-handed drumming of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. “Didn’t Cha Know?” follows next—a beautifully lush, warm song that became an immediate favorite of mine for two reasons: it was produced by James “Jay Dee” Yancey (aka and RIP Dilla), a fact I didn’t learn until years later—I had a bad habit of not reading production credits—and Erykah’s lyrics:

Time to save the world
Where in the world is all the time
So many things I still don’t know
So many times I’ve changed my mind
Guess I was born to make mistakes
But I ain’t scared to take the weight
So when I stumble off the path
I know my heart will guide me back

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I can’t overstress the importance of these words to me at the time. 18, 19 years old—living away from home for the first time in my life—trying to make sense of my next move, of my purpose in life, all the while mired by depression. I guess—I needed to know it was okay for me to not know what to do, and it was okay for me to change my mind, and it was okay for me to be lost. No one had said to me before, “It’s okay to be lost.”

Think about what was asked of you when you were 18—to know what college you wanted to attend, and what you wanted to study; to effectively decide your career path for the next fifty years; and to know—in whole—what would make you happy. What is happiness to an 18-year-old? What does happiness look like? It is smoke swirling, trapped in a glass. It is shifting, impermanent,  intangible. I felt so lost, and I missed my friend so much. I just wanted to hide.

By the time “Booty” concludes—a fun, braggadocio song voiced by a woman listing all the reasons she fails to match the life and trappings of another woman, yet is still bad enough to take the other woman’s man (if she so chooses—and she doesn’t)—the album, easing you in with airy tracks, swells in density, in impact, first with “Kiss Me on My Neck (Hesi).” The significance can’t be understated, the vulnerable call for the simple, but life-giving, intimacy by a black woman:

I want somebody to walk up behind me
And kiss me on my neck and breathe on my neck
I want somebody to walk up behind me
And kiss me on my neck and breathe on my neck

Been such a long time
I forgot that I was fine
Just kiss me on my neck and breathe on my neck
I want somebody to walk up behind me
And kiss me on my neck and breathe on my neck

If you want to feel me
Better be divine
Bring me water, water for my mind
Give me nothing
Breathe love in my air
Don’t abuse me
Cause these herbs are rare

“A.D. 2000” was, for me, an anthem that spoke to that feeling of being lost—not just the result of living suddenly as an adult, or grieving the death of a friend, but the shock and awe that comes with increased reading, with increased exposure to different people, cultures, beliefs, philosophies. Mensah—as I come to understand him now—was born and shaped during this time in DC, and these words meant so much to me:

No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me
To go down dilapidated ooh
No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me
My name will be misstated, surely

This world done changed
So much yeah yeah
This world done changed
Since I been conscious

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And what could I possibly begin to say about “Orange Moon,” still one of my favorite love songs? The love in my life at the time, a woman who believed in me, in my nascent work and voice, who deserved so much more than the 18-year-old version of me, wasn’t, in retrospect, that great love—and that’s okay. Not every love is meant to be great. But it is a blessing, I suppose, if I can say the love, however brief, was meaningful, and unforgettable, even fifteen years later. Still, “Orange Moon” was immediately beautiful, even if it took many years for me to understand what Badu was saying with her lyrics:

Many nights he was alone
Many, many, many nights
His light was so bright that they turned away
And he stood alone
Every night and every day
Then he turned to me
He saw his reflection in me
And he smiled at me when he turned to me
Then he said to me
How good it is, how good it is
How good it is, how good it is

I could stop here, and Erykah Badu could’ve stopped here with “Orange Moon,” but the album continued. One after another, song after song, Erykah slowly revealed herself to the listener with such wanton vulnerability and emotion; with each listen, I fell in love as she fell in love, I reflected as she reflected. There’s the unabashed fall into love with the aptly-titled “In Love With You,” which contained the album’s lone feature as Badu shared the song with Stephen Marley.

“Bag Lady” remains to this day a quotable and relevant track on emotional baggage. Fun fact: the original album version of the song differed from the official single and video. This disappointed me so much, because I loved the video version so much (officially referred to as the “Cheeba Sac Remix”), I remember loading up Napster—yes, Napster—and searching for the remix. I found it, ripped a copy of the official CD I bought at a store, removed the album version of “Bag Lady,” and replaced it with the remix found on Napster. This version of the album remains the one I have, fifteen years later—I have no idea what the original version sounds like anymore, and I’m okay with that:

Bag lady you gone hurt your back
Dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold on to
Is you, is you, is you

One day all them bags gone get in your way
One day all them bags gone get in your way
I said one day all them bags gone get in your way
One Day all them bags gone get in your way

Written, presumably, with her first child, Seven, in mind, “Time’s a Wastin” is a grossly underrated Erykah Badu song (perhaps due to its penultimate proximity to the album’s finale and crown jewel, but we’ll get to that in a moment). If “Didn’t Cha Know” made it okay for me to be lost, “Time’s a Wastin” reaffirmed what I already knew, and still know, in my blood: I’m not afforded the privilege of being perpetually adrift without a charted course, or even a notion of where I might want to go.

Time’s a wastin
Don’t you take your time young man
Keep on driftin and
Ain’t no tellin where you’ll land

Livin in a world that’s oh so strange
Boy don’t let your focus change
Takin out the demons in your range, hey
Livin in a world that’s oh so fast
Gotta make your money last
Learn from the past

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Which brings us to the end. “Green Eyes,” a ten-minute track in three distinct parts or movements, is vulnerability, the humiliating desire for someone who no longer wants you, in its purest form. If Twitter had been around back in 2000, I cannot imagine what the mentions of Andre 3000—Erykah’s former partner and father of Seven—would’ve looked like when “Green Eyes” was released.

Perhaps it’s salacious to suggest the song is about their relationship and breakup, and this was my immediate thought about the song when I first heard it. It could be about anyone, or no one, and the possibility of it being about Erykah and Andre does nothing to increase the song’s potency, nor does the opposite take anything away from it. Rather, “Green Eyes” is classic and timeless in its bloodletting, in its realness—a woman, a lover, standing tall as her former lover moves on with someone new, putting on airs as if the new relationship doesn’t affect her. The song moves on to quiet resignation mixed with denial—“I’m insecure/But I can’t help it/My mind says “move on”/My heart lags behind/But I don’t love you anymore.” The song’s final movement brings about the words of a woman, a lover, with nothing left to lose:

I’m sorry I love you
It hurts me ooh
You told me you loved me too
Ooh then you lost your love
Ohh then you lost your love
And then you lost your love, wanted me to go away
But I can’t sleep
I can’t leave it’s too late
I can’t leave it’s too late
I can’t leave it’s too late
I can’t leave it’s too late

Just make love to me
Just one more time
And then you’ll see
I can’t believe I made a desperate plea
What’s with me?

How does “Green Eyes” relate to my past? How do I say this without revealing too much? If Erykah sings from the heart, or at least from the perspective of a jilted lover, then I was the one who moved on. I remember my lover, the one who believed in me fifteen years ago. It has taken almost fifteen years—ten, maybe—to even begin to forgive myself for what happened.

My love life is filled with messes, and what happened in DC was the first mess, the formative mess, the one that would define the path of ashes I’d leave behind for the next ten years, give or take. Mamas Gun was there when I started the bad habit, the gross mishandling of hearts. “Green Eyes”—the album itself—closes with Erykah in tears, her voice cracking, as she whispers “thank you” into the microphone, as if someone handed her a tissue. I wish I could comfort her, even now, fifteen years later. But I can’t.

mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.

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