Texas Music

When Is a Phone More Than a Phone? When It's Erykah Badu's New Mixtape

Earth goddess and Dallas native Erykah Badu's latest effort, a mixtape entitled But You Caint Use My Phone, is kind of like an postmodernist Afrofuturistic funk and trap version of eccentric British film director Peter Greenaway's Dear Phone.

That 1977 short film features images of red telephone booths in London, handwritten notes and more than 14 main characters mentioned by a narrator, as well as numerous telephone sound effects like dial tones, busy signals, and even the sound of a rotary phone being used. Essentially, Badu's mixtape turns the film into a unique 21st-century riff on cell-phones. As an artist and cultural oracle, Badu traffics in a kind of subliminal, surreal psychedelic atmosphere — a space where her forward-thinking music, vegetarianism, affinity for Jodorowsky-style spirituality, the DJ persona Lo Down Loretta Brown, South Dallas intellectual hustle, and musings on the Irving Janis concept of Groupthink can all peacefully co-exist. This is where But You Caint Use My Phone lives.

Certainly one of the best of the year, the tape could be viewed as Badu's extended homage to many who came before her: Midnight Star's 1984 funk anthem "Operator," made using robotic vocoder and '80s synths; Kraftwerk; Detroit techno as captured on "The Scene"; Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock"; funk legend Betty Davis with a bit of Hedda Hopper; Parliament-Funkadelic; "Travelling at the Speed of Thought" by the Ultramagnetic MC's; and even Kool Keith's most humorous outer-space moments. The seed for this mixtape was most likely planted during Badu's live freestyle performance of "Tyrone" back in 1997. That song instantly became an anthem at a time when cell phone usage was still a new thing to the public and people actually enjoyed concerts without holding up cell phones to record the entire show.

These days, however, cell phones and the rise of the Internet have completely changed American culture. Although the idea of a monoculture died a long time ago with newer technologies, Badu takes the listener on a journey through the familiar but unfamiliar territory of the cell-phone conceit. Greenaway's Dear Phone mentions a man named Paolo, who has a telephone in every room of his house. "Paolo's only pleasure had been to use the phone — he phoned people like other people blink their eyelids; it was a reflex action," says the narrator. In Badu's cell-centric world, however, mobile phones replace outmoded land lines and telephone booths. The very first song, "Caint Use My Phone," cleverly begins with a busy signal and serves as both a reference and beginning of a sequel to "Tyrone."

Badu's humor is evident here as she sings, "Put a message in a bottle, but you can't use my phone." People who don't normally listen to mixtapes or who are new to the concept will have a tough time grasping the idea that non-DJ mixtapes, if done well, often represent a deeper exploration of themes in an even more experimental way. Though some will be tempted to compare this to full-length studio albums, it's better to just compare this mixtape to others of its kind — and few will surpass this one. Badu parodies Drake's "Hotline Bling" by creating an updated woman's version entitled "Cel U Lar Device," in which she sings about "glasses of champagne out on the dancefloor." Both songs reference the Timmy Thomas classic "Why Can't We Live Together."

In another song, "Phone Down," Badu sings, "Every time you get a message, act like you don't see it" and "I can make you put your phone down." She even pays tribute to the 1984 New Edition classic "Mr. Telephone Man," and elsewhere brings more Afrofuturistic, outer-space funk vibes in "U Don't Have to Call." The second part of "Medley: What's Yo Phone Number/Telephone (Ghost of Screw Mix)" salutes the late DJ Screw and H-town by giving her music the 'chopped and screwed' treatment. Appropriately, the mixtape ends with "Hello," which features Andre 3000 and raises the question of what an entire Badu/3000 concept album might sound like.

Overall, But You Caint Use My Phone has a high-quality sound and concepts not found in most mixtapes. And perhaps it will encourage other artists to be more creative and experimental.

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Ericka Schiche