Erykah Badu

Intelligent, imaginative and spiritual, Erykah Badu is such a welcome counterpoint to gangsterism and thugism that, in retrospect, it's easy to understand how she quickly became a pop star. Part Afrocentric healer and part spiritual counselor, Badu prefers the contemplative life, but she's not shy about sharing her understanding of human relationships, either.

With all these strengths, Badu's first album of new material in four years is a triumph. Not only does Mama's Gun have structural and conceptual integrity, but musically it swells with that heightened sense of reality that we expect from our best artists. Compared with your garden-variety hip-hop, Badu's music is medicine for the heart and mind.

In a sense, the album is a continuation of 1997's Baduizm, in which Badu played perfectly the role of a strong black woman who passes along real-life wisdom. That wisdom resurfaces in "Cleva," from Mama's Gun, a song that brings a smile to this weary soul. The "cleverness" here is the kind that comes from a woman who realizes that her power lies in her mind, not her body. It's about a woman who can take a $7 dress and make it work on her figure, which "ain't so fly." It's the same wisdom that takes a tailbone and a mess of greens and turns them into a gourmet meal. It's the essence of soul, and Badu wears it like perfume.

A particular favorite is "Orange Moon," not because it's the most melodic tune here, but because it seems to be a perfect love song (or spiritual song) for the new millennium. This album is deeply satisfying, one of those keepers that you'll be going back to long after this month's flava is gathering dust on the shelf.

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Aaron Howard