Erykah Badu's mixtape proves she's still as funky as ever, while showing appreciation for a new generation of artists.
You don’t peg Erykah Badu as the type of artist to release a mixtape. Her albums are well thought-out, seemingly in every sense. They’re rich with instrumentation, passing as top-notch soul music while keeping a foot in the hip hop scene. They’ve been spaced a few years apart, presumably to get everything to sound perfect, with 100% crisp production and the type of vocal delivery that has given Badu legendary status.
But You Caint Use My Phone comes just a couple months after Badu released her remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which originally used the mixtape’s title but has since been renamed to “Cel U Lar Device.” The title is a nod to her Live single “Tyrone,” which is one of Erykah’s most epic tracks despite not appearing on a studio album. (If you’ve never seen it, check out the live video here.)
“Cel U Lar Device” is almost your traditional mixtape track in the sense that it it’s one artist jumping on another artist’s instrumental to create their own vibe, while riding on the coat tails of the song’s familiarity. However, with an artist like Badu, it isn’t going to be a matter of simply jacking the song's melody, switching the word “girls” to “dudes” and calling it a day. That would be too simple to come from the artist who gave us classics like “On & On” and “Didn’t Cha Know.”
Badu told Vice, “I’m writing all the time, but recently I got the bug back. When it comes, it comes, and I can’t force it, but recently I got it back with ‘Hotline Bling’ and all the other things I’ve been experimenting with.” You may remember that Drake mentioned an inspirational encounter with Badu on “Days in the East,” saying, “Remember one night I went to Erykah Badu house, she made tea for me / We talked about love and what life could really be for me.” It seems like the two kindred spirits work to inspire each other, which is a sign of good things happening in this world if you ask us.
If “Hotline Bling” was an initial burst of inspiration for Erykah to embrace Drizzy’s steeze, then “Phone Down” is the product of basking in that vibe. The mid-tempo beat scans similarly to “Charged Up” or “Back to Back,” with a chorus that doesn’t sound unlike Drake’s sad-boy braggadocio. Badu insists that she can make you put your phone down, and there’s no question that the queen’s presence would at least garner a switch to ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode. The track was apparently written in part by Drake himself, which would explain the style of R&B Erykah employs for the unlikely hit.
Erykah wears certain influences on her sleeve. “Mr. Telephone Man” is a quasi-cover of the New Edition song that showcases Badu’s ability to modernize the ’84 R&B sound. “U Don’t Have To Call” is a take on Usher’s single of the same name. “Medley: What’s Yo Phone Number / Telephone (Ghost Of Screw Mix)” is everything but discreet about utilizing the much-missed DJ Screw style of production on the latter half of the track. “I’ll Call U Back” sounds akin to Post Malone’s hit “White Iverson,” with nearly the same exact vocal delivery as the young star uses on his viral hit.
The Andre 3000-assisted cut, “Hello,” is naturally what made headlines upon the mixtape's release. The two have a deep history together, collaborating on tracks like “Humble Mumble” off Stankonia, and beyond the music, they share a son together from their romantic years. To summarize the state of their relationship, Andre told Vibe last year, “Erykah and I are cool friends, man. We talk on the phone. She even asks my advice on relationships. She’s like a cool sister more than anything.” “Hello” is just as beautiful as two grown adults who share a child and a stable relationship. Not only does it have a great, rare verse from the legendary Three Stacks, but it also sees him channeling some of his newfound influences as well. The hook undoubtedly channels Young Thug’s melodic delivery, especially with that final holding note, “know what I meeeaaaan.” It’s totally Thugger, of whom Badu once said, “I love Young Thug.” It might seem like such a massive leap to go from artists like Badu and Three Stacks to somebody as controversial as Young Thug, but let’s keep it simple: they’re all forward-thinking, music-making weirdos from the South who are polarizing for their experimental tendencies.
While the majority of the tape is great, there are a few moments that miss the mark. The science lesson at the beginning of “Dial’ Afreaq” is cool, but the '80s-fied vocal delivery doesn’t pack the punch you want, after hearing about how cell phones are working to actually kill bees. Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together,” which is sampled on Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” makes three separate appearances on the record. It’s an R&B classic, but does it deserve a third of the mixtape’s run time?
Even with the nods to other artists, Badu has still managed to keep some sort of mysticism around But You Caint Use My Phone. The mixtape was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but has since been removed on virtually every Soundcloud, YouTube, and mixtape site account that was once streaming it. Now it’s available for purchase on iTunes, licensed under the Motown record label. With entire songs revolving around R&B classics from the past, it makes some sense, but we can’t imagine what royalties must look like for a record where each moment stems from another composition.
But You Caint Use My Phone also has a couple of contributions from an absurdly Drake-sounding MC that is actually ItsRoutine. We’re not exactly sure what purpose his impressions serve, but they certainly work to make things a bit odd. On par with that oddity is the word “squirrel” repeatedly making an appearance where “girl” would normally be used. It would seem that Badu still has some of that freaky Soulquarian blood in her after all these years, and you know what? We can dig it, baby. It keeps us on our toes.