BUT YOU CAINT USE MY PHONE by Erykah Badu
Genre: Neo-Soul, Contemporary R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Cel U Lar Device,” “Phone Down,” “Hello”
“Hotline Bling” is a blight against our collective humanity and deserves to die as swiftly and mercilessly as possible. No one, absolutely no one needs ringtone rap to come back into fashion, because nobody has to pay for ringtones anymore; not even Ice-T should be having to get worked up about this.
Yet here we are, at the end of 2015, trapped in a never-ending horror show of ISIS attacks and constant mutterings of “you used to call me on my cell phone”. It’s been nothing short of jaw-dropping to watch Drake’s stupid sweater dance infect the entirety of the internet and to bear witness to the acceptance that this underwhelming non-song is what’s going to capture our sugar-coated attention spans for the time being.
So what are we supposed to do in these trying times? Turn off the radio entirely? Write snarky internet articles about it? Well, if you’re Erykah Badu, you release a mixtape exploring this pop culture moment we’re being forced to endure together. The results, as it turns out, are surprisingly intriguing.
BUT YOU CAINT USE MY PHONE is Badu’s newest release since 2010’s bizarre (but admittedly interesting) NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO: RETURN OF THE ANKH. It’d be a strange return for anyone, but for an artist as influential as Badu, it’s nothing short of daring. Openly sampling, covering, and rearranging “Hotline Bling”, every track serves as a slightly different take on the hit pop song, always with an ironic eyebrow raised, chopped and screwed, and an additional layering of instrumentation that makes the songs more listenable and engaging than the original. Overall, it’s a fascinating deconstruction of our modern attachments to our cell phones as a means for superficial romance, all under the guise of simply riffing on the internet’s favorite meme du jour.
The cover really does say it all when it comes to this mixtape: Badu as a multi-armed Shiva, each arm holding a phone. Badu is fascinated by how our cell phones have come to entirely define any idea of romance that we have, and the limiting scope this places on our relationships. While most of the music here could be qualified as pop, there is an experimental and sardonic undertone to every track.
Whether it’s tracks like “Phone Down,” where Badu entices her lover by claiming she can actually convince him to put down his cell phone, or a sample of Badu’s extensive voicemail menu directing superficial friends and connections to a rabbit hole of extensions so that at the very last second her “real friends” can be told to just text her because she never checks her voicemail, almost every moment on this album plays out as a great melancholic joke. When our favorite Canadian rapper himself, uncredited in the track listings (and providing another layer of commentary over the proceedings), makes an appearance, he’s apologetic and indecisive; “Will this bitch click over for me, I mean, will this woman click over for me? Is it over for me?” Rather than directly respond, Badu simply sings “hello” over and over again, unable to directly give her romantic partner attention.
At the end of the day, what makes BUT YOU CAINT USE MY PHONE especially noteworthy is how effortless it feels. Badu realized with a certain amount of consternation how popular “Hotline Bling” was going to be, and seemingly instantly understood how to create an entire album breaking down precisely why a pithy pop song so immediately spoke to the masses. It’s the best use of the internet imaginable, using art as commentary on art and then releasing it for free to be part of the discussion.