Clearly a stopgap release as we eagerly await for her to finish her now-5-year hiatus and release New Amerykah Part Three to cap off one of the greatest triptychs music has ever seen (/heard). I wish I could say But U Caint Use My Phone was charming the first time I heard it, and that it simply wore off (as most novelty things do) over time, but the truth is, I could barely make it through the first time due to shoddy track sequencing. The mixtape plays like this: (1) a song that’ll remind you how good the bass line of “Tyrone” was; (2) an interlude that’s used as a lead-in and also heard again in the closer; (3) a 6-minute (???) pseudo-cover of “Hotline Bling” that has nowhere to go after the first time you hear Erykah sing “Cel U Lar De Vice”; (4) the mixtape’s first song – after only more than 10 minutes of waiting! And then! (5) the beat of “Hotline Bling” again while a Drake impersonator named ItsRoutineWhoCares cums everywhere. On the other side of things, she impersonates a robot and tells everyone that cell phones are the cause of the death of bees before quoting Big Sean; it’s obviously a joke, just not one we’re in on (“Dial’Afreaq”).
And yet! And yet, it’s dumb to just write off But U Caint Use My Phone because closer “Hello” has one of the best verses this year, thanks to ex Andre 3000 – in the span of a minute, he invalidates the existence of the Big Grams anticlimax earlier this year. I mean, check out the way he leaps from thread to thread: “Don’t need shit on the side no more, all entree, fuck a salad / I often have awesome thoughts of tossin’ this softer palate,” to the rapid-fire rhymes during the flow switch of the second half that quoting even in full won’t do justice. And then, after a Young Thug-like bridge (where Andre 3000 unfortunately does this, “Will this bitch click over for me? / I mean will this woman click over for me?”), Erykah Badu returns, her voice sweetly harmonizing with Andre 3000’s during the outro.
[Sidebar: when I first heard the two say “Don’t change, squirrel, for me, babe,” I immediately thought of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which is the only other time I’ve heard people refer to loved ones as squirrels, a play celebrated as (unintentionally) feminist, which made sense because you could take “Cel U Lar Device” – and by extension, this entire mixtape – as a response to “Hotline Bling”‘s sexism. Apparently, she just used the word because it rhymed with “Girl.”]
But overall, But U Caint Use My Phone is overrated: critical acclaim clings to Erykad Badu (as well it should), but seeing this release make it on year-end lists was disheartening, and hearing people claim “Cel U Lar Device” is better than “Hotline Bling” even more so.
“Hotline Bling” is a good pop song, one I enjoy a helluva lot more than “Hold On, We’re Going Home” – its catchy, the smooth beat provides a good rhythm, the music video’s been responsible for a bunch of laughs (and, as I understand it, cheap Hallowe’en costume ideas, both for men and women). It’s flawed, especially because of the awkward bridge, even though Slant‘s Mac wrote a good defense for it for the website’s writeup as Slant‘s best single of 2015 (ridiculous placement), but good. If it’s annoying, it’s because ubiquity – not a function of music – often is. “Cel U Lar Device” avoids the original’s bridge problems by having Erykah Badu do an overlong and unfunny answering machine message.
Here’s Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan on the mixtape as a whole:
“‘Mixtape’ is just the word that best describes what this is: A loose collection of thoughts, built around the same theme but not really organized. The songs here mostly aren’t full-fledged songs; they’re sketches, or allusions.
So: This isn’t some moment-defining masterpiece, and it has no aims at becoming one. In almost anyone else’s hands, the whole concept would seem slight, hackneyed, undercooked. But for Badu, it works, since Badu is the type of artist who seems to communicate mostly via private joke.
There are no stakes here. Badu has made titanic album-length statements before, and she has nothing left to prove. She doesn’t have to do it again. She has the almost-universal esteem of everyone who pays any attention to music, and so she’s got the artistic capital to make something as slight and, in its way, friendly as this.”
Yeah, all of that, except, as mentioned, I don’t think private jokes are that funny or that the mixtape’s slightness is worth celebrating. But there’s no denying it is friendly: “Phone Down” – the album’s second best song – has Erykah Badu using her (sonic) sexuality as her weapon of choice for the war on phones; “I’ll Call U Back” has a really lovely melody that should’ve been expanded on instead of being pasted over “Hotline Bling” for the umpteenth time on the release; the album’s other interpolations or remixes of phone-related songs are all well-sung because it’s fucking Erykah Badu. It’s good, almost by default, ya know?
Anyway, this is probably the last 2015 release I’ll review in 2015 – tomorrow’s the most overrated day of every year, despite the fact that no one I’ve spoken to rates it highly. You used to call me…