Phones are undeniably everywhere, so much so that they’ve become inspiration for many songwriters. Of course, this is nothing new; music’s relationship with the telephone has been a long affair. From Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Telephone Line’, Blondie’s ‘Call Me’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ all the way to Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, and not forgetting the flip-phone that made an appearance in Adele’s video for ‘Hello’. Whether the protagonist is slyly texting, whispering sweet nothings whilst twirling the phone cord around their fingers, or slamming that flip-phone in frustration, phones have become integral to making people feel either connected or disconnected.
Erykah Badu’s new mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone explores intimacy and how reliant we are on staying connected, with each track referencing phones in one way or another. It is an authentic hip-hop mixtape, allowing Badu to put her own spin on other artists’ tracks.
The mixtape fades in with what sounds like various pitched dialling tones, which creates a melodic sequence before gasps are heard and the lyrics “You can call her, but you can’t use my phone”. Badu then suggests various methods of communication including telepathy, message in a bottle and Morse code – all completely reasonable alternatives.
This track is followed by 30 seconds of “Hello, hello, hey, hello, hello”, perhaps a little reminder of just how much we rely on phones to talk to each other, or a reminder of how phones used to be a stationary object so we’d suffer missed phone calls and answering machines.
With its beat taken from Timmy Thomas’ 1972 anti-war plea ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ is a track that might not even exist if it wasn’t for the work of artists such as Thomas and Badu. Therefore, it is no surprise that the track, renamed ‘Cel U Lar Device’, should make an appearance. Badu explores, through what sounds like a voicemail, the reasons that someone may want to phone her: to wish her a happy birthday, “because you just saw her on B.E.T, MTV, or any other social media outlet” or “If you’re calling to beg for some shit in general”.
‘Phone Down’ is focused on trying to convince someone to reconnect with real life. Badu’s despondent vocals and minimal production suggest that she probably knows it’s already too late.
The mixtape also features New Edition’s ‘Mr. Telephone Man’ and Usher’s ‘U Don’t Have To Call’. ‘Dial’ Afreaq’ is a light-hearted rewrite of the early electro-rap hit ‘Dial-A-Freak’ by Uncle Jamm’s Army.
The mixtape’s final track ‘Hello’ features André 3000, the father of Badu’s only son. His duet with Badu reinforces the theme of connection. Andre’s lyric “Is this bitch gettin’ over on me?” with Badu later vocalising “Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine, mine, mine, mine, mine / But I can’t help it, baby”. The outro then connects the pair by repeating “Don’t change, don’t change, squirrel / For me, baby”.
Badu understands the power of intimacy, the roughness and repetitive elements of But You Caint Use My Phone is what makes the mixtape sound not only intimate, but soulful.