Two of the biggest songs of the last few months — Adele’s “Hello” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” — are about, among other things, calling people on the telephone, which is something that almost nobody does anymore. What does that mean? And what does it mean that all of us are now walking around with access to the complete history of human knowledge in our pockets? Only a decade or two ago, the lazy joke about teenagers was that they were always talking on their phones; kids today would seem like charming retro anachronisms if they did that. Now, the lazy joke is that teenagers, and parents, and everyone else, are constantly staring, unblinking at their phones. Watching my kids chase each other around a playground is one of life’s primal pleasures, and yet I have to keep reminding myself to not look at my phone while I’m doing it. Even as we’ve stopped using our phones as phones, we’ve got this increasingly tortured and needy relationship with them. Maybe that’s what Erykah Badu was thinking about when she made But You Caint Use My Phone, her new mixtape. But we’ll never know, exactly, since Badu is way too slippery of an artist to ever come out and tell us.
Badu’s last album was New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh), the second in a sprawling and ambitious two-album avant-funk project, one that refracted the entire history of American soul music through a strange and intensely personal prism. That was more than five years ago. It’s still her last album, since But You Caint Use My Phone isn’t really an album. It’s not really a mixtape, either, at least in the way that we usually use the term. “Mixtape” is just the word that best describes what this is: A loose collection of thoughts, built around the same theme but not really organized. The songs here mostly aren’t full-fledged songs; they’re sketches, or allusions. Badu incorporates bits and pieces of “Hotline Bling” and a handful of other phone-themed hits: Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call,” New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” the Isley Brothers’ “Hello,” Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me,” her own “Tyrone.” The “Hotline Bling” drums — those weird sad empty mechanized salsa blips that Drake sampled from Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” — return again and again, a mournful theme. Badu even gets some guy who sounds so much like Drake that I thought it was Drake at first to rap over those drums. The rapper in question is ItsRoutine, from Atlanta, and he seems to have built an entire mini-career from sounding exactly like Drake. (It is, to be fair, a remarkable Drake impression.) I’m fairly certain that Badu brought him in as some sort of private Drake-based joke.
So: This isn’t some moment-defining masterpiece, and it has no aims at becoming one. In almost anyone else’s hands, the whole concept would seem slight, hackneyed, undercooked. But for Badu, it works, since Badu is the type of artist who seems to communicate mostly via private joke. The whole tape feels like an outgrowth of the gender-inverted “Hotline Bling” freestyle/cover that she posted on SoundCloud last month. It’s like the experience of recording that got her thinking about phones, about outmoded technology and the constant human need for connection. The whole thing feels like an organic outgrowth of that one track, continuing its mission of dancing around the idea of telephones and what they mean. She takes sounds we haven’t heard in a while — the busy signal, the boo-doo-deet number-disconnected tone — and works them into her music. She builds an entire old-school electro-funk track out of what sounds like the Midnight Marauders robot-lady host’s voice. Even the most complete tracks, like “Phone Down,” aren’t fully constructed tracks. Instead, they’re meditations on the theme — in that case, that Badu’s sex is so good that it can force you to stop looking at your phone and thus forsake the ultimate distraction of our historical moment.
Badu’s voice is such a sly, slithering thing that she gets away with these incomplete songs, these insinuating sketches. She’s a hell of a singer, but she never shows off her voice in any pyrotechnic way. Instead, she tiptoes around her beats, pinched and nasal, saying as much with a silent pause as another singer would with a huge gospel-style run. In a way, it’s great to hear her use that voice for something as focused and single-minded as this tape. There are no stakes here. Badu has made titanic album-length statements before, and she has nothing left to prove. She doesn’t have to do it again. She has the almost-universal esteem of everyone who pays any attention to music, and so she’s got the artistic capital to make something as slight and, in its way, friendly as this. The friendliness here is key. She’s not decrying our societal dependence on the iPhone; she’s just reminding us gently of what we might be missing. Over and over, she sings the word “hello,” and there’s nothing withering about it. Every time, it sounds like a real welcome.
And all of it leads up to the tape’s one real masterpiece: The tape-ending track “Hello,” which reunited Badu with André 3000, her ex and old collaborator. (André and Badu have a son, the 18-year-old Seven Sirius Benjamin, who helped Badu out on the “Hotline Bling” reimagining.) Badu is singing “hello” some more, while André is wrapping his mind around the idea of dropping his tough exterior and opening himself up to love. (He’s rapping in character, I think. André hasn’t had a tough exterior, at least on record or in persona, in 20 years.) Their two voices dance around each other, André stuttering and conflicted while Badu is languid and serene. And while their deliveries and their sentiments might clash, their voices still find rapturous ways to twist themselves around each other, their old on-record chemistry from OutKast’s “Liberation” and “Humble Mumble” snapping back into sudden focus. “Hello” has only been in my life for a few days, and I’m still figuring out what I think about it. But the track’s sun-baked beauty was enough to make me hold my breath the first time I heard it. I get the feeling that Badu can make a song like this anytime she wants to. And now that we’ve got a piece of music like But You Caint Use My Phone, an album-length work that’s both consciously slight and occasionally devastating, I hope that means Badu is opening to expanding at length on whatever she’s thinking about at any moment. She doesn’t have to make some magnum opus every time out. She can just do this forever.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Coldplay’s mushy-headed big-pop move A Head Full Of Dreams.
• Rick Ross’ dependably opulent Black Market.
• Sunn O)))’s extended drone-metal nod-out Kannon.
• Kid Cudi’s drums-and-guitars alt-rocker Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven.
• Pimp C’s posthumous snarler Long Live The Pimp.
• Dumbo Gets Mad’s Neil deGrasse Tyson-inspired psych-soul album Thank You Neil.
• Astropol’s crisp Scandinavian rocker The Spin We’re In.
• Secrets Of The Moon’s metallic death-rocker SUN.
• Deantoni Parks’ drums-and-samples solo album Technoself.
• Lil Bub’s apparently-this-needs-to-exist novelty album Science & Magic: A Soundtrack To The Universe.
• Plaitum’s self-titled EP.