Erykah Badu went through changes to work out emotional baggage and free minds from penitentiary philosophy in this clever conscious ascension. She released her debut album Baduizm in 1997 (featuring the Grammy Award winning single "On & On"), which won a Grammy for Best R&B Album and went triple platinum. She recorded the double platinum Live while pregnant with her son Seven (the father was Outkast's André Benjamin); and the album came out later that year when he was born. She took some time off with her new son; and, in 1999, she won another Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for her collaboration with The Roots on "You Got Me" from their album Things Fall Apart.
'Mama's Gun' was produced with the Soulquarian musical collective at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. D'Angelo's Voodoo and Common's Like Water for Chocolate were being recorded there at the same time with engineer Russell Elevado using vintage equipment to achieve a warmer throwback soul sound. Badu took on a more active production role: "Each [song] I had to take a lot of time on and make sure everything was right on it before I let it go. That's why it took so long. I mean, I was producing, as well as writing, as well as singing, and directing the video, I mean, all things I chose to do. And every time I would complain, people would say, 'Well, you said you wanted to do it all!' and I'd be like, 'I know, I know.' It was a one-woman show this time, but it was great. It was a good experience. And I got it all done! I got it all done. It wasn't on time. But it was on time, you know what I'm saying?...[It was] definitely more complicated [writing and producing]. I mean, I was the one calling the shots, but I had a lot of people who were involved with playing music and coming up with ideas, and helping out and adding to the project. All the creativity had to come from me, which was very hard. So if I had studio time booked, and locked out for a week to finish the album and I had no ideas, I mean, the day I mastered the album, I had just finished two songs. I just came straight from the studio to master it. I didn't get to hear it or critique it or anything. So it just came that day. It's kind of hard, doing it all yourself. When you don't have, like, a lyric writing team and all that."
The sessions featured Erykah Badu on vocals, background vocals, production, and art direction; Leonard "Doc" Gibbs on percussion; Larry Gold on cello and string arrangements; Roy Hargrove on trumpet and horn arrangements; Pino Palladino on bass; Emma Kummrow on violin; Shaun Martin on keyboards; Roy Ayers on vibraphone; Peter Nocella on viola; Charles Parker and Gregory Teperman on violin; Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson on drums; Bilal Oliver, Geno "Junebugg" Young, and Yahzarah on background vocals. Betty Wright was a songwriter. vocalist, and arranger. The production team included executives Erykah Badu, Kedar Massenburg, and James Poyser; as well as Questlove, J Dilla, Snook Young, Shawn Martin, Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, and Karma Productions ( Ivan "Orthodox" Barias and Carvin "Ransum" Haggins).
'Mama's Gun' shot to number seventy-six on the UK pop chart, fifty-six in Austria, thirty-three in Switzerland, nineteen in Sweden, eleven on the UK R&B chart and on the US pop chart, seven in the Netherlands, and number three on the US R&B album chart.
"Bag Lady" was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Badu says: "Uh, I wrote "Bag Lady" a few years ago. After Baduizm, in '97, so about two and a half years ago, right after I finished Baduizm, when I started my live show. I actually started writing it because I was inspired by my own personal growth. You know, I was happy I was able to assess things a little bit better. And I figured out that the reason I couldn't get through the day as well as I can now is because I had too many things on my mind, on my plate, you know, for one person to have. So I started to eliminate some of the things that were too heavy to carry and unnecessary. So that's where the words came from. Actually, it started with a melody I was humming, and usually the words find they place, they be waiting to get on a song. So they just kind of come through me some kind of way. I mean, they can use the album for whatever they need or what they want. Hopefully my music is medicine, some type of antidote for something or some kind of explanation or just to feel good."
Badu reflects: "Penitentiary Philosophy", when I think of the title, Mama's Gun, I saw the album artwork, I just felt like that should be first. The reason I wrote that song, the music came first, of course, it was a session that James Poyser, Ahmir Thompson from the Roots, Pino Palladino, and I were in. Three peeps and me, we were just clowning around, and we're like, 'Hey, let's do this...' and I freestyled the lyrics. The first draft was very close to what you hear now. I knew the reason for the song but I didn't know what it meant yet. I just found that out. "Penitentiary Philosophy", we lock ourselves into our own philosophies, our own religions, our own walks of life, and if we fail, we condemn ourselves and then we get sick. I think that if we can find a way to clear our minds free and be a little freer and not lock ourselves into things, because I think we're afraid of change. I think a lot of people have lost respect for the individual, you know, the individual, the person who doesn't conform. It's a jail. It's like, if you don't be this way when you go to work, so and so is gonna talk about you. If I don't do this, someone was like, 'We live a commercial every day for the world.' It's unnecessary. And I'm tired of doing it. So I wanted to write a song about it.
"Didn't Cha Know?" was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Song
1. "Penitentiary Philosophy" Erykah Badu, James Poyser,
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson 6:09
2. "Didn't Cha Know?" Badu, James Yancey 3:58
3. "My Life" Badu, Poyser 3:59
4. "...& On" Badu, Jahmal Cantero, Shaun Martin 3:34
5. "Cleva" Badu, Poyser, Yancey 3:45
6. "Hey Sugah" Badu, N'dambi 0:54
7. "Booty" Badu 4:04
8. "Kiss Me on My Neck (Hesi)" Badu, Jack DeJohnette, Poyser, Yancey 5:34
9. "A.D. 2000" Badu, B.J. Wright 4:51
10. "Orange Moon" Badu, Brah Lon Lacy, Martin,
Eugene "Snooky" Young 7:10
11. "In Love with You" (featuring Stephen Marley) Badu, Marley 5:21
12. "Bag Lady" Badu, Brian Bailey, Ricardo Brown,
Nathan Hale, Isaac Hayes, Craig Longmiles, S. Martin, Andre Young 5:48
13. "Time's a Wastin'" Badu, Young, Martin 6:42
14. "Green Eyes" Badu, Vikter Duplaix, Poyser 10:04