Erykah Badu's magical voice alternates between tentative and self-assured. On her gorgeous 1997 debut, Baduizm, she delicately stepped over R&B's past, present, and future with a confidence that her mentors would applaud. She channeled Billie Holiday through a scratchy hip-hop groove, and she peered through the looking glass to '70s funky soul with knowledge of everything that came after it. Bass-heavy, smooth, and laid-back, Baduizm is modern soul music that sounds nothing like modern times. Yet all the strut and sway of the album seems to be hiding something -- a fear, or something not quite so strong as the surface lets on. The coolness was slightly offset by Badu's attempts to make the somewhat stifling material breathe. On the new Mama's Gun, she exhales, as do the songs, and the result is an album that stuffs the debut's poise into a package that has more than a bit of nostalgia for '70s soul. More so than Baduizm, Mama's Gun plants a big ol' soul kiss on the past and caresses the music into the present. Like D'Angelo's Voodoo, Mama's Gun lets the songs unravel (several of the musicians are the same on the two albums), but where D'Angelo finds his muse across the studio and works his way slowly to it, Badu saunters toward hers and finds the song within (D'Angelo mostly found the groove). Gun is a warm record, rich in sound, and the naturalness of it gives it a sense of intimacy clearly missing from most current R&B -- or pop, for that matter. You can expect many of those same qualities when Badu kicks off her tour here this weekend.
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