A year after the neo-soul candor of Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut album Baduizm was born, the singer introduced a new delivery into the world: her first child and only son, Seven. Having a baby with her then-partner André 3000 — one-half of groundbreaking Atlanta rap outfit OutKast — was a turning point for the couple. On paper, Badu and André were Black music royalty, but as their relationship met its end in 1999, they transmitted communication through albums that marked political and mental unrest, mirroring the way they’d telepathically admired each other in magazines before meeting in person. While André and Big Boi held down the Southern rap fort on Stankonia, Badu soulfully narrated the anxieties, rebellion and fortitude of Blackness on Mama’s Gun, released 20 years ago this Saturday.
Experiencing writer’s block for months before recording at Electric Lady Studios in the artsy Greenwich Village hub of New York City, Badu was wearily split between residencies in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and her hometown of Dallas. She was part of the inaugural class of the Soulquarians, a vanguard of Black artists of the mid-’90s to early aughts. The collective included — but wasn’t limited to — Common, D’Angelo, Questlove, and Mos Def. It was D’Angelo and Questlove who named the group, both sharing Aquarius as their zodiac sign. As the Soulquarians’ sole and reigning woman, Badu faced tremendous pressure to craft a follow-up to Baduizm along with being a first-time mother. While her debut served as a bridge between teachable moments and light grooves, it was clear to Badu that her sophomore effort needed to emit lessons of constant self work. With Seven’s lifelong journey in mind, Badu shared her titular definition of Mama’s Gun with Jon Pareles of The New York Times. “I’ve become a mama,” she said, “and I figure my son is going to need some protection when he goes out in his world. And there’s no better protection than your mama’s words. That album is the gun: use those words, those feelings, to solve the problems.”
In 1999, Electric Lady Studios housed rotating sessions for Mama’s Gun, Common’s uplifting breakthrough Like Water For Chocolate, and D’Angelo’s riveting magnum opus Voodoo. Electric Lady was founded by rock icon Jimi Hendrix shortly before his death in 1970, and it was believed that his spirit haunted the premises, embodied by the studio’s affectionately named house cat, Jimi. Evoking the perfectionism of the actual guitarist, Jimi the cat would wander into each artist’s session, either remaining if the music was exceptional or quickly fleeing if it was subpar. While this fantastical strangeness occurred, Badu felt nurtured within the Soulquarians, which she mentioned in an interview with Jancee Dunn of Rolling Stone: “This may seem strange, but the best way I can describe it, it seems like we are a tribe of lost children who are reunited. Our spirits are shown through our music, and we hear each other. You know, in different tribes, when the slaves were brought over, they had certain drumbeats [sic] that were indigenous to each tribe, and it’s almost like the music is like that for us.”
Following her tribal descendents’ cue, Mama’s Gun was nestled deep between ’70s extraterrestrial funk and the Afrofuturism of years to come. Nearly two decades before Childish Gambino launched into a psychedelic outer realm on Awaken, My Love! opener “The Night Me And Your Mama Met,” Badu’s industrial rock domain of “Penitentiary Philosophy” veered far from the smooth comfort of Baduizm. With a two-year-old Seven at her hip, the track featured Badu chaotically whispering a mental checklist, nearly forgetting about her self-care in the process. Through warbled vocals, “Penitentiary Philosophy” methodically enveloped the spirit of “Hit It And Quit It” from Funkadelic’s bizarre 1971 trip Maggot Brain.
After the first song presumably rattled listeners who were expecting the warmth of Baduizm, “Didn’t Cha Know” was an ambitious collaboration between Badu and producer J Dilla — a natural alchemist on any project he was involved with. Referred to Dilla through Common, Badu visited Dilla’s hometown of Detroit, where he advised her to pick a record from crates in his extensive vinyl collection. Badu landed on Tarika Blue, the second and final album by the ’70s jazz band of the same name. They put the record on, and destiny had its way: The two landed on “Dreamflower,” sampled as the mellow backdrop on “Didn’t Cha Know.”
The visual for the song communicated that Badu’s progression had been anything but easy — she treks aimlessly through the Mojave Desert before it’s revealed that she’s been walking in circles. With a scarab beetle (representing life cycles and rebirth in ancient Egyptian religion) mimicking her travels, “Didn’t Cha Know” ends with Badu arising from the emerald-hued waters beneath the sand’s surface with a freshly-shaven head. Badu’s elaborate signature headwrap was no more; instead she stepped into her “Sarah Bellam” phase, baptismally cleansed from commercial expectations.
Referencing the Five Percent Nation and acknowledging the misinterpretation of her artistic message on “On & On” sequel “…& On,” Badu called herself a “gypsy flippin’ life game from the right brain.” It was a cheeky response to André, who referenced her on controversial 1998 Aquemini single “Rosa Parks”: “I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game/ To stimulate then activate the left and right brain.” While they weren’t in the same sessions, the exchange between Badu and André was playful banter. In good humor, Badu channelled mind over matter on “Cleva,” a jazzy, spoken word centerpiece that paid homage to the revival of the Black poetry scene: “This is how I look without makeup/ And with no bra my ninny’s sag down low/ My hair ain’t never hung down to my shoulders/ And it might not grow/ You never know.”
Mama’s Gun was a natural jam session, but Badu was still hyperconscious of the mistreatment of Black men while raising a son. On Feb. 4, 1999, Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was misidentified as a rape suspect and shot at 41 times — 19 bullets fatally striking him — by four NYPD officers in the Bronx. Triggered by the news, Badu grabbed her acoustic guitar and co-wrote “A.D. 2000” with late soul vocalist Betty Wright. The track swelled with mourning through multi-instrumentalist and producer James Poyser’s Minimoog while Badu and Wright banded together in multi-generational unison. In 2016, a Pitchfork review of Mama’s Gun by Daphne A. Brooks drove Badu’s point home:
In contrast to Baduizm, Mama’s Gun offers a more pointed, sustained, and grounded statement about what it means to get tired of waiting out and wading through the wretchedness of urban blight, the perpetual threat of police brutality and lethal force, the baggage from bad relationships and the sometimes oppressive voices inside one’s own head.
The universal origins of Black womanhood and its baggage was quite literally portrayed in “Bag Lady,” a reclamation of self-worth and the departure from generational trauma. While the album version of “Bag Lady” had a slower paced drum riff over a sample of Soul Mann & the Brothers’ “Bumpy’s Lament” — the source material for Dr. Dre’s 2001 track “Xxplosive” — the music video also featured the sample over a palatable, upbeat hip-hop tempo. Flipping the misogyny of “Xxplosive” into an affirmation of moving onward, each woman in the video — including Badu’s mother and her sister, Nayrok Wright — wore colors that symbolized chakras, Badu representing the root chakra. The women also duly portrayed characters from Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf. Like the scorned all-female characters of Shange’s dramatic elegy, Badu embodied the pain that women undergo when met with four words by men who feel suffocated in a relationship: “You crowding my space.”
At the video’s end, Badu experiences a moment of joy by cradling a then-infant Seven amidst subconsciously preparing him for hostility he’d face as a Black man in America. Though 2000 was a time where André and Badu both spoke similar languages to their son on separate albums, it was Mama’s Gun that was the armed bible for ongoing Black plight and self-preservation.