This is part four of a four-part series on Erykah Badu’s massive role in communicating and normalizing Black feminism in contemporary discourses. Check out parts one, two and three.
Badu’s most recent project, But You Caint Use My Phone, is a fascinating case study and provides plenty to discuss from black feminist and afrofuturist perspectives. The cover art is comparable to The New Amerykah, Pt. 2, [Return of the Ankh], as her body is robot-ified with speakers and boomboxes all over herself. The cover comes off like an advertisement — perhaps a commentary on the commercialization of black bodies in the music industry. It’s the least conventional of her album covers and represents Badu at a point in her career where she’s so far ahead of social norms that she doesn’t have to pander to commercial audiences anymore. She contacted producer Zach Witness, a fellow alum of Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, and the two created the mixtape in only 11 days with Badu performing all of the songs in only one take.
According to Consequence of Sound, the two used unconventional recording techniques to create the album: “Badu and Witness focused on creating “sympathetic vibrations” between the music’s frequency and vibration, even utilizing a tuning fork and Tibetan singing bowls to find the precise wavelengths. The goal was to create “a sound that brings peace and tranquility to its listener.” While these strategies didn’t originate in Dallas, they represent an innovation from the more southern styles Badu was emulating on the album. She presents the album as “TRap & B,” a clever mixture of trap, rap, and R&B. Badu had played with the sounds of rap and R&B on albums beforehand, but this was her first foray into trap. The album represents her empathetic qualities:
On “Live,” the album “Tyrone” was on, I said, “the atoms in the body rotate at the same rate on the same axis that the Earth rotates, giving us a direct connection with the place we call Earth.” Well since then the Earth has sped up — the rotation and the vibration. And so are the children who come through. Their ears are calibrated for a certain frequency, digitally and sonically. And as an analog girl who is very mutable and can adapt to the digital world, I also have evolved with that too.”
She’s able to sense the changes the world is making to hip-hop and align herself with it. Sonically, it’s Badu’s most distinctive album. From a press release promoting the album, “The mixtape expertly weaves Erykah Badu’s trademark soulful vocals with psychedelic soundscapes, Hip Hop-inflected beats, smooth R&B, jazz, art-rock and found sounds.” Counterbalancing the many styles at play is the constant stream of themes addressing cell phones and virtual communication in the era of mass technology. The album does well to tie together Badu’s many pursuits — But You Caint Use My Phone is a lyric from her hit “Tyrone,” released in 1997. “Caint Use My Phone (Suite)” opens the album. “You can call it, but you can’t use my phone / You better use telepathy cause you can’t use my phone / Put a message in a bottle, but you can’t use my phone / You better use Morse code cause you can’t use my phone.” The song collapses after her verses, falling into a cacophony of loud telephone noises and synth clusters. It comes off as a futuristic commentary on the impact of cell phones on society. According to Badu, they could be causing society’s downfall.
“Mr. Telephone Man” is a beautiful track that harkens back to earlier days in Erykah’s discography, with flowing R&B vocals and pleasant harmonies, a juxtaposition from many of the minor key tracks. Despite the upbeat nature of the instrumental, the lyrics contain heartbreak. “There is something wrong with my line / I get a click every time.” This song is perhaps the best example of “TRap & B” at play. “U Don’t Have to Call” is a track dedicated to an extraterrestrial lover: “Ooh boy, what planet do you come from, boy? / Is it Neptune or Jupiter, boy? / Come and feel my loving boy.” She also refers to him as “squirrel” on the track, further displacing his humanity, rather than appreciating his inherent value. It’s an afrofuturist position on romanticism.
“What’s Yo Phone Number / Telephone” is another song in minor key, a song about courting a lover. Badu and feature ItsRoutine rap explicitly about love and sexual relationships, but their tone remains eager and respectful, refusing to bow to violent or otherwise rude trops that are common in hip-hop. In “Hip-Hop Revolution,” Ogbar spends a whole chapter deconstructing feminism, machismo, and gender in hip-hop music. While he concludes that blind, misogynistic machismo is a more commonly used trope to earn authenticity, he acknowledges rappers that have taken more feminist approaches to their music. “Dial’Afreaq” is sonically distinctive and thought-provoking. The song opens with robot-voiced commentary about how bees are being killed or permanently altered by cell phone radiation. This adds an important dimension to her music — there aren’t many artists taking such environmentalist positions in their music, and it’s important for Badu to speak on such issues. “It is unlikely that the world will ever, ever, ever relinquish the convenience of cell phones / Plus how we gon’ call Tyrone to help us come get our shit.” Once the interlude ends, Badu shows up and spits a verse with robotic vocal layering. It’s a memorable verse: “Underwater ill motherfucker from the other sun / 214, all on my phone / We’re from Dallas, baby, freak freak zone.”
The next track, “I’ll Call U Back” is about prioritizing life and mental health over phones, a direct response to the last track where she says people will never let go of cell phones’ convenience. A dial tone closes the song, giving the effect that she’s not on the phone anymore. Fading vocals towards the end of the track give the feeling that she’s ridding herself of the negative influence of phones and constant internet presence.
“Hello” is the final track on the album and features André 3000, with whom Erykah Badu used to be entangled and had her first child, Seven. André’s verse starts out with a challenge that speaks to the emotional weight we carry in our cell phones: “Leave your phone unlocked and right side up / Walk out the room without throwin’ your bitch off balance.” This is the start of an emotionally vulnerable verse from 3000, as he raps later, “I seem to wanna talk more and more ’bout what really matters.” The song coalesces into a beautiful harmony between the two: “It’s important to me / That you know you are free / Cause I never want to make you change / For me, babe / Don’t change, don’t change, squirrel.”
The song is the mixtape’s centerpiece, with emotional depth and acceptance between two former lovers. The mixtape touches on topics such as intimacy, communication, and technology, and incorporates themes of Black feminism and Afrofuturism throughout the project. It’s a project that may not be as appreciated as her other work, due its experimental nature, but it still carries weight as a piece of art that displays the lived experiences of a Black woman born and raised in Dallas.
Erykah Badu’s empathetic nature and Texan upbringing are crucial to understanding her impact on contemporary music. She’s successfully played a role in the progression and communication of Black feminism and afrofuturism, and the importance of the space she created for artists to seek authenticity on their own terms cannot be understated. Musicians from Texas and beyond credit Badu for inspiring them to express themselves.
With such a broad influence across many genres, it’s impossible to say exactly what Erykah Badu’s impact will be on music 30 years from now, but the only thing for sure is that she’ll still be part of the conversation, just like her idols Billie Holliday and Chaka Khan. Presenting her Dallas upbringing and culture with such honesty, mixed with an innovative genre-bending approach that accounts for southern hip-hop, R&B, funk, and soul, Badu exposes Black feminism and Afrofuturism to the world, making these practices widely celebrated in contemporary music.