I think anyone who writes about music describes their childhood the same way — early memories of huddling around the family record player, the crackling sound waves radiating enough fiery breeze to emanate past the mouth of the foyer and a laundry list of godmothers and godfathers on 12-inch. But as a child, music truly did not consume my life. Some of my earliest musical memories involve being convinced that the Black Eyed Peas were saying “boo-she” on the uncensored “Elephunk” CD my parents used to play in the car. Or listening to “Confessions'' while playing Madden 07 in my garage — pretending my lifeline space heater was the microphone, the blocky rendition of Giants Stadium on the pop-static screen my stage and realizing that what Usher was vibrating into my cochlea was not for the common man. The seeds had been planted, but in the soil they sat. Music didn’t start controlling my life until a road trip I took in high school.
To that point in my life, the best body of musical work I thought I’d ever heard was the Minecraft soundtrack — which, let’s be honest, is not the worst album to put on a pedestal. But I was going on a long road trip, and I was becoming, perhaps subconsciously, unsatisfied with listening solely to YouTube EDM — a special 14-year-old shoutout to Monstercat. I asked around for recommendations, and a friend told me about someone named Lauryn Hill. The seeds finally got the nutrients they’d been waiting for.
And, since then, those seeds have been fortunate enough to grow, expand and flourish, along with myself. I’m deeply indebted to the branches that have since blossomed from the trunk — the Sades, Al Greens, Radioheads and Missy Elliotts of the world. Eventually, these calloused stalks reached “Baduizm,” Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut album. I first listened to that album in 2017 and was instantly hooked. Three years later, I finally decided to listen to “Mama’s Gun,” her sophomore, well, anti-slump. I remember telling a friend that the reason I held out so long was because I was “afraid I’d like it too much.” Those suspicions were entirely correct. Nonetheless, I could have never fully prepared myself for the intro track — you guessed it, the greatest song of all time. And honestly, I’m glad I waited.
“Penitentiary Philosophy” begins with Badu muttering some swirling stressors of everyday living — taking her vitamins, heating up the apartment and other trivial tasks of maintaining the monotonous. They build, thicker and thicker, until Badu reaches a breaking point. With a wail of embittered liberation, Badu takes an aural hammer to the walls of her mind — decorated with portraits of the whispering voices inside her head. With cerebral rubber bands stretched too thin, Badu finds a transcendental release, as the “warrior princess / [that has] come from another sun.” And I don’t think any of us would disagree with that self-assessment. The Badu cascade has begun.
She’s angry — and about a lot more than just vitamins. “Why world do you want me to be so mad” carries the hook of Badu’s witchy warble as it reaches the heavens — sung with such a pointed conviction that you’d think she’s channeling her grievances while staring directly into the sun. Except, in this case, it’s the sun who turns herself away at first contact with Badu’s vegetable-green eyes — eyes that billow with the thick, opaque smoke of rage. With Questlove on the drums, the two combine to steamroll through one of the most jarring, frustrated, breakneck odes to social and mental decay ever produced. And I’m not using “breakneck” lightly — try listening to the “whys,” “yeahs” and “make mes” that round out the backend of the track without something in your bone structure screwing loose.
Daphne Brooks puts it best. In a 2016 review for Pitchfork, she states that “Mama’s Gun” “offers a more pointed, sustained, and grounded statement about what it means to get tired of waiting out and wading through the wretchedness of urban blight … and the sometimes oppressive voices inside one’s own head.” The album’s opener exemplifies this burst of invigorated agitation — both at the world and at the self — which is why “Penitentiary Philosophy,” on more than one occasion, has entirely replaced my morning cup of coffee.
From the intro track alone, it was pretty obvious that Badu had also taken some time to let her seeds grow in the buildup to “Mama’s Gun.” “Penitentiary Philosophy” felt like her own personal nod to the Black musical tradition as a lineage, as a community and as a commitment to shared excellence. A nod to the spacey, extraterrestrial funkateers of the ‘70s, a nod to the soul-belters and pulpit-rattlers and even a more explicit nod towards one of the greatest to ever breathe — Stevie Wonder. The second verse of “Penitentiary Philosophy” flips the second half of Wonder’s “Ordinary Pain,” a half that starts with longtime Stevie-collaborator Shirley Brewer yelling “you’re just a masochistic fool!” For Erykah Badu, this exclamation feels appropriate — in content and in creation.
So, even though there were at least three years of my life where I existed without “Mama’s Gun” and without “Penitentiary Philosophy” — when I know I truly didn’t have to — I’m still glad I waited. I’m glad I waited because in that three-year gap, the seeds of my musical existence continued to grow new branches. I reached Funkadelic, which led me to the Ohio Players, which led me to Betty Davis, which led me to Bad Brains, which spun me in an ever-continuous circle until I arrived here — far removed from video game soundtracks and space heaters. These artists that brought me to “Penitentiary Philosophy” are the same artists that brought Badu herself to “Penitentiary Philosophy'' — I was just lucky enough to follow the root. These artists, and others, have helped me ferment my musical inventory with new shades of appreciation and made the savory flavor of “Penitentiary Philosophy'' so much richer.
So, if I may, I’ll wrap this entry up with a soapbox spiel. Good taste isn’t necessarily about already having an inventory spilling over with shades of influence. To me, good taste is simply the desire to find the influences that water your own personal plant — I guess. Amass your own internal lineage and amass your own catalogue of excellence — and to me, that’s good taste. Ask your friends for recommendations, keep an open mind and only put off listening to an album if you truly, genuinely have a handful of seeds you’d like to sow first.