When Erykah Badu dubbed herself an "analog girl in a digital world" on 2000's "... & On," she spoke to most through CD or cassette. At first, the nickname seemed to refer feeling out of touch or alienated from the modern age. Over time, though, the words have come to mean something very different.
Fifteen years later, Badu is still describing herself using that same language, now on a SoundCloud bio. Her latest mixtape You Cain't Use My Phone is a meditation on the digital age's smartphone culture, top to bottom. Yet the songs, which include her soulful remix of Drake's "Hotline Bling," have none of the knee-jerk disdain for technology one might expect from a self-proclaimed "rasta-style flower child."
Badu operates in a somewhat unique place on this front. She approaches technology from a mystic's perspective — as an analog skeptic whose slight distance may provide a deeper perspective than a digital girl might be able to muster. How can technology help bring distant souls together? How can human beings overcome distraction? Badu has been asking and answering these questions for a while now, and her insights have only gotten more profound.
The title of Badu's most recent mixtape comes from a line of off a 1997 song "Tyrone," a single from her live album aptly titled Live. Badu kicks a freeloading boyfriend out of her life and tells him to call Tyrone to help him move out, but he can't use her phone.
Tyrone appears on You Cain't Use My Phone as well, after a lengthy spoken interlude where Erykah Badu relates a theory that cell phones are causing the declines in honey bee populations. After her grim warnings, she adds, "It is unlikely that the world will ever, ever, ever relinquish the convenience of cell phones/ Plus how we gon' call Tyrone to help us come get our shit."
As unfortunate as it might seem in the context, it's a realistic approach. While cell phones and other digital technologies may be disrupting our environment and our lives, recoiling from technology is not an option for most (and may not even be preferable environmentally speaking).
Despite her earth-bound roots, Badu has long been out in front on this idea.
"I am in this thing," she once told Electronic Musician in 2008 when asked if she still considered herself an "analog girl in a digital world." "I am looking around, but I am still me. I'll bring what I can to the digital world. I am a Pisces with Mercury in Aquarius, baby. Mercury is the planet of communication. And Aquarius is a futuristic thinker."
Badu started enlightening fans with her intriguing mix of skepticism and enthusiasm of digital trends in earnest with 2008's New Amerykah Part One. On "The Healer," Badu positions the internet as a haven for core hip-hop artists and fans — as a means of sharing music outside of traditional media mainstreams. "Told you we ain't dead yet/ We been livin' through your Internet," Badu sings.
Yet technology has its dark side. When users are so hopelessly plugged in, it's far easier for them to be caught up in distractions and forget what's real. "You don't have to believe everything you think," she warns on the same song. "We've been programmed/ Wake up, we miss you."
This same tension between technology's ability to connect and distract weaves throughout the new mixtape. On "Phone Down," she gives some strikingly simple solutions to those frustrated with a significant other's constant cell phone use: Break the cycle and show your partner you're listening. "I'll cut mine off too," she sings. "Boy, that'll help when I listen."
The most transcendent moment on You Cain't Use My Phone comes in the stellar "Hello," her duet with former lover André 3000. The phone in this song fulfills its most basic, original purpose — connecting souls separated by miles and miles — something many forget smartphones still can do. André 3000 debates calling Badu, stressing over whether she'll pick up. When she does they share a brilliant moment of harmony, agreeing not to change despite the fact that time is moving ever faster around them.
As easy as it is to despise how complex today's gadgets have made our lives and social interactions, at the end of the day technology is not at odds with soul. One simply has to use it correctly.
"I think it's beautiful to see people dialoguing and socially networking," Badu told Alwayz Therro in 2010. "The more we can do it the better understanding we can have for one another. I only think it creates more compassion. It weeds out the people who aren't evolved enough to embrace one another, so you can choose who you want to speak to. It's so clear. The writings are so clear."
The more inescapable smartphones become, the more the world will need artists like Badu helping people find ways to make sense of them emotionally. Putting the phone down for a minute and picking up a Badu album is as good a starting point as any.