But You Caint Use My Phone, the new stream-of-consciousness mixtape from Neo Soul Queen Erykah Badu, is, in essence, a remix album. It was born of a “remix” version of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” that she put together as a birthday present for a friend. Like most things Badu, it’s anything but a standard remix; rather, it’s a reimagining, her riff on another artist’s work that becomes wholly her own. Just ask yourself, after watching Drake’s redbone call center video and hearing her hilarious hotline message, whose hotline would YOU call?
Of the Aubrey Graham original, Badu told the LA Times that “It’s beautiful in its simplicity.” Much has been said about the memeology of Drake, but it’s a tried and true formula for creation; plenty of artists make music ripe for remixes. Take a song filled with negative space, and creative people will get inspired to fill it with themselves. Badu is one of the form’s greatest practitioners, and here she flips some classics: New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call,” Uncle Jamm’s Army’s “Dial-A-Freak,” and Todd Rundgren’s version of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me.” She flips some of her own jams, too, weaving the punchline from live classic “Tyrone” throughout, and reworking “Telephone,” a jam from New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) inspired by J Dilla.
In fact, it was a remix that connected Badu to her main collaborator on the tape, a Dallas producer who goes by the name Zach Witness. She first heard a mix he made of her music on Soundcloud; she would later learn that he had been a child turntable prodigy nicknamed “White Chocolate,” and that they had attended the same high school, 15 years apart. For the But You Caint Use My Phone sessions, they holed up at casa Badu, working with Atlanta rapper and Drake vocal impersonator ItsRoutine (aka Aubrey Davis), Outkast’s Andre 3000, and his son with Badu, Seven. She told the Times that Seven “wrote a lot of jewels on here.”
The 11-song, 37-minute tape certainly sounds like it was flipped in less than a couple weeks, and in the best way possible. It’s breezy, easy, and confident; the product of someone who’d already spent a couple decades honing her craft. Badu has always had a casual mastery of bending the english language to express herself, and But You Caint Use My Phone is just an entire album worth of that vibe. It exists partially on the astral plane, somewhere in the vibrations and wavelengths sent careening into space by our cellular devices. The tape is quite obviously about phones, but the lyrical themes emphasize the interconnectedness that these devices facilitate, a search for peace, tranquility, and “sympathetic vibrations” of analog humans in a digital world. Badu and Zach Witness were hyper-conscious of these vibrations, using Tibetan singing bowls and tuning forks to hone in on specific wavelengths. Only someone of Badu’s talent can pull off a stream of consciousness this mystical and make it coherent.
There’s plenty of sarcastic humor to be found here — Badu herself classifies it as “TRap & B.” But there’s also a maternal compassion; she floats back and forth between serious and goofy, without ever touching the ground. Songs like her ode to disconnecting, “Phone Down,” can seem almost somber, which is not a word you’d use to describe “Dial’afreaq.” From verses within songs to the sequencing of the album, her flow is completely on point. Badu’s vibe has always been a hybrid of calculated freestyle; it’s loose enough to feel improvised, but way too clever to come from nowhere. But it doesn’t matter what was off the top or what was written; just hit repeat, sit back, and go with the flow. It’s what Badu would do.