Erykah Badu’s latest mixtape answers call for strange tunes

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When Erykah Badu calls But U Cain’t Use My Phone a mixtape, she seems to be acting way too modest. She’s like that popular girl in school who poses in that impeccably curated outfit of the day and quips, “Oh, this? I just threw this on.”

Her first project in five years, But U Can’t Use My Phone was altogether recorded in a near-spontaneous burst of 12 days. Yet, you’d think that Badu had dreamt about this mixtape for half a decade, because it has such a dazzling complexity. But You Cain’t Use My Phone buzzes with insights on our dystopian obsession with smartphones, and her ancient voice ties the recordings together into one neat package — an excursion into a surreal, tripped-out wonderland.

In a typical mixtape format, But U Cain’t Use My Phone mostly consists of interpolations and covers of an eccentric assortment of songs. There’s everything from Usher, to the Isley Brothers, to New Edition — the ‘80s progenitors of the boy band movement. The entire project started with her one-off remix of “Hotline Bling.”

On paper, this collection of songs seems haphazard and unrelated. Yet, Badu is clever enough to find universal thoughts and concerns throughout each track, as if she were supernaturally sensitive to the vibrations of a collective consciousness. As she sings these covers, Badu plays a Rip Van Winkle character who is startled by our generation’s reliance on phones for intimate connection. On her remix of “Hotline Bling” — retitled “Cell U Lar Device” for the mixtape — Badu slightly tweaks the chorus and sings, “You used to call me on my cellular device.” She sounds two decades behind.

Badu experimentally reimagines these tunes with a futurist sound that whirs and rings with all sorts of cellphone noises. Her opening track, “Caint Use My Phone,” riffs off the last line of her 1997 single, “Tyrone,” and the song begins with an uncomfortable disconnect tone. The song slowly warps and layers this tone into a rippling cacophony of synths.

But U Cain’t Use My Phone explores a juxtaposition between very contemporary trap rhythms and more timeless elements such as her soulful croon, which often evokes Billie Holiday. The only noncover track on the album, “Phone Down,” has the rattling, crisp hi-hats of trap music, but it also has a sparse piano melody that rings coldly from a distance.

She calls the resulting style “TRap & B.” Weirdly enough, the sound on “Phone Down” has a striking resemblance to Drake’s style a la Nothing was the Same. Although Badu’s colleague Zach Witness produced the entire album, “Phone Down” sounds as if the singer called Noah “40” Shebib into their makeshift bedroom studio.

In fact, Drake’s haunting persona constantly pops up throughout the mixtape. On “U Used to Call Me,” and “What’s Your Phone Number,” an obscure rapper ItsRoutine performs two verses that are shockingly accurate impersonations of Drake. To make matters more strange, ItsRoutine’s first name is also Aubrey. ItsRoutine’s resemblance is so strong that it’s almost spooky. With her astral mysticism, Badu seems to have conjured Drake’s apparition from another lifetime.

Badu is clearly interested in deconstructing the phenomenon of Drake — one of 2015’s most powerful hip-hop stars. Yet, the tone of ItsRoutine’s performance is a bit enigmatic, floating in a liminal space between lighthearted parody and scathing satire.

But U Cain’t Use My Phone sometimes exists in this offbeat emotional state that can be jarring for its listeners. On her cover of “U Don’t Have to Call,” Badu strips away the fiery passion of Usher’s performance. She replaces it with kitschy, soulless synths that are evocative of Wii music. Maybe the soulless quality is the point — part of the mixtape’s dystopian vision. Despite this novelty, the song isn’t very much fun on its own.

The mixtape ends with its most exhilarating track, “Hello,” which is a cathartic burst of human emotion after the album’s exploration of digital alienation. The song features a freewheeling verse by Badu’s former lover, the iconic Andre 3000 of OutKast. (Fun fact: “Ms. Jackson” is actually about Badu’s mom) Paired together, Andre 3000 and Badu have a beautiful intimacy on the track, which has so many intricate layers of regret, longing and remembrance.

On “Hello,” Badu sings, “Hello, it’s me.” It’s the first line of Adele’s blockbuster hit, “Hello,” another 2015 song about cell phones. But Badu is drawing from a song originally recorded by Todd Rundgren in 1972. Is the reference to Adele intentional? Was Adele’s “Hello” even released while Badu was in the recording studio? Badu draws so little attention to the line, which is buried deep in the middle of the song. The echoes between Badu and Adele altogether seem to be an uncanny coincidence.

But U Cain’t Use My Phone has such a wide range of sonic adventures and poignant meditations that will mesmerize any first-time listeners of the album. But the mixtape will most likely demand countless revisits because it is so deeply shrouded in riddles — the coincidences on “Hello,” the mystery of ItsRoutine — which seem pulled out of Badu’s mystic, otherworldly dimension.

On “Phone Down,” Badu repeats the refrain, “I can make you put your phone down.” She’s right. You’re going to have to put your phone down for this mixtape — if not for the sheer thrill of her music, then for the endless puzzles that will jolt you out of your digital world.

Jason Chen is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @1DirectChen.