Review: Erykah Badu Continues R&B’s Longtime Game of Telephone on ‘But You Caint Use My Phone’
Release Date: November 27, 2015
In this pop moment of 17-38 squads, Gap Band pastiches, and Queen Adele looming on her throne, how bizarre that 2015’s runaway cultural convergence should come along in the guise of an eternally self-pitying Drake and his even-keeled “Hotline Bling.” And yet that unassuming single, in which our Drizzy seems seriously bummed to learn an old flame is showing more skin than usual out on the avenue, has spawned an unlikely late-season scramble towards masscult consumption, Justin Bieber and Sam Smith jostling elbows with Sufjan Stevens for coverage. Not that any of these icons offer much in the way of interpretation: where Bieber works busily embellishing a melody line Drake wisely left unadorned, Smith via Disclosure coaxes proceedings from the club into the lounge while Stevens merely raises a teacup in sadboy solidarity. Such is the way of week-long flings. Leave it to Erykah Badu to show the fellas how it’s done with an eye for posterity, reconfiguring the tune for her specific timbre, switching up gender POV with ease, and swapping out a plodding “cell phone” for her own hopscotching “cell-u-lar dee-vice” — so classy, so jazzy.
Five long years after New Amerykah Part Two, a delayed mixtape cut in-house over a week or so and centered around phone use doesn’t scan like much on paper. Really, 37 minutes, 11 songs, two or maybe three of ‘em covers and/or adaptations, one of ‘em 30 seconds of Ms. Badu scatting “hello hello,” repetitive glances back at her own nearly 20-year-old single about calling up Tyrone to help you come pick up your shit — you’d be forgiven for thinking You Caint Use My Phone a bit slight. But it’s way more accurate to describe the effort as simply relaxed, a relievedly brief meditation on connections and communications, drenched in a retro vibe respectful of “Hotline Bling”’s original source material.
Where Drake and producer nineteen85 heard a hook with sampling potential in Timmy Thomas’ 1972 “Why Can’t We Live Together,” Badu seizes upon grander possibilities of celebrating vintage sounds, whether opening the joint with loops of now-antiquated busy signals or reveling in the tinny preset grooves of the Rhythm King drum machine that connects lucky duck Thomas with visionary Sly Stone. That ‘70s vibe carries on through wall-to-wall Fender Rhodes, muted or sparkling depending on the moment, along with Talking Book-era Stevie Wonder synth bass whomp (“U Don’t Have to Call”) and a dreamy take on the Todd Rundgren/Isley Brothers classic “Hello, It’s Me.” Badu even turns quintessential ‘80s boy-band smash “Mr. Telephone Man” into a smooth soul murmur, tamping down New Edition’s original hormonal pleading and digitized cheese in favor of a deep background simmer.
“High frequency tones for the soul,” she says, and maybe so. But you’re more likely to hear an extended foray into a grand old African-American pop tradition of exploring telephone-enabled heartache, with all the miscommunication, dropped calls, and interminable answering machine outgoing messages that subject entails. And Badu makes a notable contribution: let us welcome the bemusedly lascivious “Phone Down” into the pantheon along with Shirley Brown’s payphone throwdown “Woman to Woman,” The Time’s pantingly blue-balled “777-9311,” and Chuck Berry’s broken-family operator lament “Memphis, Tennessee.”
A sex champ boast with legs to stand on, “Phone Down” details the great existentialist crisis of our day, i.e., getting a dude to look up from his iPhone. It’s a potentially doom-laden topic, although the mood here is playful enough to suggest this guy’s worth the effort. “Tell me do you copy?” she teases; “Probably wouldn’t even know how to unlock it,” she challenges. That’s the sass queen we all love. But what’s most charming about But You Caint Use My Phone is how unpretentiously Badu comports herself, ever-mindful that one of her most special qualities as a vocalist remains her ability to entwine the resilient with the goofy. She’s both tough as nails and a daydreamer. And praise Neptune, she’s as kooky as ever, cooing about Cookie Monster, detailing honeybee frequencies via Speak & Spell squawk, and utilizing her very own Fake Drake (twice!) in the guise of affable unknown ItsRoutine (whose actual real name is Aubrey, natch).
Fake Drake is fun, but Badu’s collaborative instincts still shine brightest on mixtape closer “Hello,” the aforementioned quasi-Isleys tribute and reunion of sorts with André 3000. Sure, they’ve got some history. But the song gains emotional strength through understatement, proving itself immeasurably lighter than a certain ongoing blockbuster single of the same name. André’s fairly breathless turn arrives stuffed with non sequiturs: “I’ve seen my aura hop out my torso,” “fuck a ballad / fuck a salad,” “Kermit frog jump off London fog.” When that quickfire delivery charges headlong into heartfelt karaoke croon, it serves as a charming compliment to Badu’s own effortless lilt, her girlish phrasing reminding one ever more of the eternally spunky Ella Fitzgerald. Both Badu and André claim inimitable musical presences: warm, knowing, good-humored, eccentric. In an era when the pop spoils routinely go to, surprise surprise, big voices that tend a tad bland, a little eccentricity remains something to treasure.