Erykah Badu

Ms. Badu is back with another soundtrack to live by. Full of sublime beauty and profound sorrow, Mama's Gun seeps straight from your stereo into your soul. Forget about your silicone so-called divas; Badu's blues prove the real thing is righteous (even if, as she sings on "Cleva," her luv-yaself-sista anthem, "with no bra my ninnies sag down low"). This is sonic Afrocentrism at its best, inspired by the elements, the ancestors, and the everyday wisdom hard won by being black and womanist in America.

The liner notes signal the studied improvisational quality of the CD itself, with poems and notes to the reader signed "E. Badu" scattered throughout and a mystical chart sketched on notebook paper tucked in alongside photos of the songstress in her turbaned and braided glory. Badu, along with Kedar Massenburg and James Poyser, shares credit for a production that could serve as a model for precision yet does not polish the edge off emotion. The tracks take their time massaging a theme for as long as need be, letting Badu's voice caress, cajole, and careen into the impeccable arrangements, comprehending centuries.

"Kiss Me on My Neck" journeys from the computer-filtered command in the chorus to the West African-inspired coda featuring D'Wayne Kerr on flute and The Roots' Ahmir ?-Luv Thompson on drums. Cicada songs back the lush piano, deeply resonant upright bass, and the slightest suggestion of tom and cymbal on "Orange Moon," rendering Badu's vocals as clear as a cloudless sky on a moonlit night. The cicadas swell into birdsong in the introduction to the achingly simple duet "In Love with You," where Stephen Marley's roots styling overlays Badu's quiet interpretation to the spare accompaniment of acoustic guitar, electric bass, and finger snaps. Morse code introduces the CD's first single, "Bag Lady," a life lesson in letting go propelled by a martial snare drum, teasing keyboards, and a full chorus graced by Betty Wright.

The most breathtaking track is "Green Eyes," a mood piece in three movements that passes through jazz epochs as it shifts from "Denial" to "Acceptance" to "The Relapse." The song opens in ragtime, with James Poysner plunking the piano and Jacques Swarzbart swinging on sax as Badu claims to be over her ex-lover. A long exhalation takes the piece into a loopy flute-driven Fifties-era meditation on sentimental contradictions that belies those assertions. The final "desperate plea" is an R&B lament powered by Roy Hargrove's trumpet and sizzling with ?-Luv's sticks, while Badu's bent notes plumb the depths of despair. There is no more exquisite way to indulge heartbreak.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado