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The message is clear, ‘But You Caint Use My Phone’

| Monday, November 30, 2015

CantUseMyPhone_Scene copyEric Richelsen | The Observer

Erykah Badu is back, and it seems we have Drake to thank for it.

In early October, the neo-soul songstress released a cover of the omnipresent “Hotline Bling” on her SoundCloud. In trademark fashion, things got weird quickly. What begins as a straightforward rendition with some modified lyrics leads to a hilarious voicemail message meant to ward off opportunistic acquaintances. The nearly eight-minute track wraps up in a lush coda where the percussion loop of the original song is bolstered by chimes, organ and brushed snare drum. While other musicians covered Drake’s hit as a way of generating headlines, Badu made it clear that she had found inspiration when she announced that the track would be part of an all-new mixtape.

On Black Friday, Badu released “But You Caint Use My Phone” as an Apple exclusive, her first new music in five years. Such a long gap may have made her an unknown to some modern listeners, but this album works well as a summary of where she’s been and an indication of where she’s going. After all, the title comes from her song “Tyrone,” released in 1997.

While Badu has previously focused on bringing her uniquely funky sensibility to acoustic instrumentation, this new tape also shows her being more engaged with contemporary hip-hop than ever. On “Phone Down,” the second single, Badu builds an eerie atmosphere out of trap drums and pitch-shifted backing vocals. A thin sheen of auto tune covers her formidable voice as she croons “I can make you put your phone down.” It’s part boast, part come-on, part plea for some old-fashioned FaceTime.

Badu has a lot to say about cell phones and their peculiar influence on today’s world. As she wrote in an anticipatory press release, each song references “our own reliance on staying interconnected.” She’s far from a Luddite; she frequently talks to fans on Twitter, and part of her pre-release publicity involved streaming on Periscope, the live broadcasting app for Twitter. It’s not the technology itself she has beef with, but rather the way so-called communication devices can widen the distances between people. Oh, and also, they’re killing bees, as she explains in the intro to boom-bap throwback “Dial’afreaq.”

Fittingly, Badu is not the only voice on the record. Two songs feature a voice so close to Drake’s as to fool a majority of early listeners, if the Internet is to be believed. Badu’s denial then led to speculation that the rapper might be Seven Benjamin, her 18-year-old son with André 3000, making his musical debut. Investigation into songwriting credits and Genius pages ultimately revealed the mysterious rapper to be ItsRoutine, an Atlanta-based unknown born Aubrey Davis. It’s always great to see established artists putting on up-and-comers, but when this guest shares his flow and legal first name with the biggest rapper in the world, it’s hard not to feel a little tricked.

Closing track “Hello” features André 3000 with his first new verse since his reunion tour with Outkast, and the native ATLien does not disappoint. Rhymes pour out of him as rapid and as smooth as a waterfall over the minimal music. He urges his lover to “leave [their] phone unlocked and right side up.” It’s difficult to imagine a more momentous expression of trust. Though the two musicians haven’t been romantically involved since the late ’90s, their relationship is clearly intimate, evidenced by the confounding lyrical substitution of “squirrel” for “girl.” It makes no sense, but it’s funky and adorable. Their comfort with each other shines through on this ode to loving the one you’re with, even if it means ignoring the small feeling of missing out (“FOMO”) in the back of your head.

The intimate vibe does not always connect so beautifully. The telephone theme becomes too repetitive when the lyrics echo the same conversational phrases frequently. The music repeats itself as well, with several short tracks replaying motifs from earlier songs. It’s cohesive, but not exactly exciting. At only 37 minutes, the mixtape feels somewhat minor.

In the same press release, Badu writes that she fine-tuned details “with the goal of creating a sound that brings peace and tranquility to its listener.” The songs on “But You Caint Use My Phone” conjure up those feelings and more, as Badu analyzes cell phones from all angles. She incorporates seemingly every style from her past, going from old-school soul to modern trap. Though it’s less vital than her previous albums, Badu’s new mixtape is a great reminder of its creator’s talent. Here’s hoping inspiration rings her up again soon.

3.5/5 Shamrocks

Songs: Hello, Cel U Lar Device, Mr. Telephone Man

If You Like: Missy Elliott, D’angelo, SZA

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About Jack Riedy

Jack Riedy is from Palatine, Illinois, a town with sixty-seven thousand people and no movie theater.

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