Q&A: Erykah Badu talks ‘But You Cain’t Use My Phone’ from inside a party bus
It’s well past dusk on a recent evening and Erykah Badu is stretched out on plush leather seats inside a sleek party bus equipped with blacked-out windows and a ceiling with green, white and yellow lights mimicking a constellation of stars.
Badu is glowing, literally, as she is lit up by a bevy of blue incandescent bulbs and the laptop that contains the sole copy of the much-anticipated, phone-themed mix tape, “But You Cain’t Use My Phone.”
“The label doesn’t even have it. I sent it straight to iTunes,” she said of the new record, released early Friday.
The two of us are cruising down La Cienega Boulevard amid post-rush hour traffic on a route that the chauffeur is most certainly making up as he goes.
This is how she wants me to experience the mix tape she recently crafted over a 12-day stretch -- an unconventional setting for an interview, yes, but Badu is anything but conventional.
Named for the famous refrain from her now iconic kiss-off, “Tyrone,” the mix tape, released Friday, is Badu at her most experimental.
Written, recorded and mixed in the living room of her Dallas home, “But You Cain’t Use My Phone” fuses together the hard, cerebral beats currently dominating rap radio with the smooth R&B, jazz and psychedelic art-rock that’s been her signature approach to soul music since her genre shifting debut more than 18 years ago.
The origins of the record, her first new material since 2010’s acclaimed “New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh),” begin with Drake’s zeitgeisty, meme-spawning smash “Hotline Bling.” A few weeks ago the singer uploaded her cover of the ear worm -- recorded as a birthday gift to her close friend and road manager Big Mike -- to her Soundcloud where it became a viral hit, logging 1 million streams in just two days.
“What it also did was introduced me to that frequency of music because I hadn’t done it,” Badu, 44, said of the cover (the two were texting back and forth, she said, as we were riding around town).
Alongside producer Zach Witnessin, Badu explored our reliance on staying inter-connected and our dependency on smartphones over a taut, 11-track mix of rattling beats and her ethereal voice putting new flips on indelible, phone-inspired hits from New Edition, the Time, Usher and the Isley Brothers that are woven in and out of one another.
A few days before its release, Badu and I whizzed through West Hollywood side streets as she played the album. The van rattled from the thump of Witnessin’s productions and her own vocals, which were occasionally interrupted by her own voice as she offered notes about particular records.
Parked in front of her hotel after our road trip/party, we spoke about crafting the mix tape, TRap&B and finding new inspirations.
What was it about “Hotline Bling” that struck a chord with you enough to want to cover it and build a project around it?
It’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s a beautiful song, very simple. I love simple songwriting like that.
Why the smartphone theme?
It just kind of came, stream of consciousness. One thing led to another. Doing “Hotline Bling,” I called it the “But you cain’t use my phone mix,” and from there, it just started flowing. The next song I did was “Phone Down” and I kept going. “Mr. Telephone Man,” then “Hello” from the Isley Brothers, which is the last song. [Andre] 3000 got on there and it all worked together. By the end of those two weeks I had a piece that was really nice.
That lyric, “But you cain’t use my phone” has become so famous.
Yes, the punchline. I’m sure people shout at you all the time. It’s one of those things that just sticks. Do you get a kick out of that all these years later?
You know, I don’t really think about it much. I don’t think about those types of things or consider one thing bigger than the other.
What’s interesting is you’re taking a style of music that’s very prevalent right now on urban radio and you’ve taken it further than just minimal beats. But “Trap & b” certainly has a connotation, one that people might look at you say, “She’d never do that.”
I’ll explain it like this. People that see it that way really aren’t seeing. They are assuming. I love Fred Flintstone, Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner -- but my children watch it and it doesn’t quite keep their attention. One of the reasons why it doesn’t keep their attention is not because it isn’t brilliantly crafted or phenomenally written or an exquisite body of animation. It doesn’t keep their attention because of the frequency. It’s not vibrating as quickly right now.
On “Live,” the album “Tyrone” was on, I said, “the atoms in the body rotate at the same rate on the same axis that the Earth rotates, giving us a direct connection with the place we call Earth.” Well since then the Earth has sped up -- the rotation and the vibration. And so are the children who come through. Their ears are calibrated for a certain frequency, digitally and sonically. And as an analog girl who is very mutable and can adapt to the digital world, I also have evolved with that too. I still am me, but it’s like me talking to you on a rotary phone as opposed to Facetime. It’s still me.
This does feels wildly experimental, but wholly you. There’s not a moment that doesn’t feel like it’s not trying too hard. I can imagine navigating a new space without changing can be difficult to navigate?
I guess. I don’t really give it that much thought. It’s just what I really feel, what I like.
How did you link with the producer, Zach Witnessin?
We went to the same high school, 15 years apart. He did a remix of one of my songs and one of my DJ friends sent it to me and said, “Listen to this kid and see what he did.” I was impressed. He came to an art show in Dallas. The next week was Big Mike’s birthday and I decided to do [“Hotline Bling”] for him, so I called up Zach to see what he was working with. We connected and we made magic.
You recorded this in your living room?
We did one song a day. All of those vocals are actually one take. It was fun, easy. I used tuning forks and singing bowls in the music in post production, just trying to create some frequencies that felt really good that I always use in all of my works. I wanted to make sure I implanted those things here too.
There’s a lot of surprises on here. That Usher flip. That unexpected verse from Andre 3000.
My son Seven [the oldest of her three children, his father is Andre 3000] wrote a lot of jewels on here. He’s the A&R for my label, Control Freaq. He’s instrumental in connecting me with things that he likes. That really bridges the gap between he and I in our communication.
And that’s not Drake on the record?
It’s not Drake. It’s one of my artists named ItsRoutine. He’s on my label and he can do anything. He sounds like him sometimes. His name is Aubrey as well.
Are you pulling my leg now?
No, I’m not. Throughout the campaign, I’m thanking Aubrey for things and [people] think I’m talking to Drake. Which I am on “Hotline Bling.”
For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy
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