Release Date: Nov 27, 2015
Record label: Self-released
When Erykah Badu found out that her friend and collaborator J Dilla passed away in February 2006, her mind reeled. The producer was just 32, felled by a rare blood disease that clogged his body with clots and a case of lupus that caused his immune system to go haywire. Badu thought of a story Dilla's mother told her about her son's dying days, when she would find him having conversations with an unseen companion.
Leave it to Erykah Badu to make a busy signal sound beautiful. The innovative neo-soul queen opens her new mixtape, But You Caint Use My Phone, with a symphony of those throbbing beeps, all the while singing the release's title as a refrain. That name is taken from a line in one of her biggest hits, "Tyrone," a song about giving a deadbeat the boot, and not even granting him the use of a landline to a call a friend that can help him pick up his shit.This time around, Badu uses telecommunications as a running theme to explore numerous other aspects of romance, heartache and frustration.
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.
It’s been five years too long since we last heard from Erykah Badu. 2010 saw the release of the galactic dystopia New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), so it’s weird and a little unexpected to hear new music in the form of a mixtape. Her albums seem calculated and intentional, boasting some of the best in funk and soul instrumentation. Yet But You Caint Use My Phone offers a breath of fresh air that finds power through simplicity and spontaneity.
Patience is a necessary virtue for the Erykah Badu fan. Since making her ground-breaking, ankh-rocking debut with 1997's Baduizm, she has only released four studio albums. And aside from throwing us the occasional commercial bone (like "Window Seat" on her last LP, 2010's stellar New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh), she gave up a long time ago on dropping the kind of instant pleasures that work on the radio.
Prompted by Drake's "Hotling Bling," Erykah Badu quickly recorded this loose, phone-themed mixtape, an official Motown release, with help from producer and fellow Dallas dweller Zach Witness. It's a trivial if fun diversion. Badu puts her spin on "Hotline Bling," quotes "Tyrone," and appends a "ghost of Screw" mix of "Telephone" to one of the low-slung new tracks.
The phone has long been a creative device for funk and soul songwriters, as Erykah Badu's mixtape concept attests. Inspired by an impromptu remix of Drake's Hotline Bling and recorded quickly with Dallas producer Zach Witness, But You Caint Use My Phone riffs on phone-centric songs by New Edition, Usher, the Time, the Isley Brothers and her own addition to this canon, Tyrone. The way technology both enables and complicates love is one of those constant themes in life, and it's one that Badu frequently mines for comedic effect here.
At a basic level, But You Caint Use My Phone is just Erykah Badu having fun riffing on the concept of phone-centric love songs. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” acts as the original point of inspiration, and its memorable, circular clockwork beat finds its way into several of the mixtape’s songs. The general, glowing vibe of “Hotline Bling” also helps establish the tone.