”Analog girl in a digital world,” Erykah Badu sings on ”…& On,” and sure enough, her second studio album feels as modern as Ms. Pac-Man. A ’70s-soul homage featuring live musicians and a smooth-funk sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a CTI record (there’s even a flute solo!), Mama’s Gun is the female companion to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, with which it shares a reactionary pseudosophistication that too often substitutes good taste for good tunes. It’s soul music for people who — wrongly — think rap is dumb and contemporary R&B is simplistic. Unlike D’Angelo, however, Badu has a nuanced voice that pokes through the bland surfaces; sometimes she manages moments worthy of her forebears, as on the slinky ”Bag Lady” and the syncopated ”Booty.”
Much of the rest of Mama, though, is aimless and one-dimensional, full of self-help platitudes like ”If you’re looking for a free ride, you better run chile or you sure won’t get too far” (”My Life”). And Badu’s logy analog grooves sound particularly thin when you hear her in a more modern context, as on the propulsive ”Humble Mumble,” from the new OutKast album, Stankonia. It features a 60-second Badu vocal that’s more gripping than any of Mama’s 70-plus minutes.
For anyone seeking classy background music, Mama delivers; skip the leaden funk-rock opener, ”Penitentiary Philosophy,” and the album moves right into a meandering mid-tempo groove with few intrusions — those pesky memorable melodies, those annoying shifts in dynamics — to distract you from your Sunday morning paper. But why shell out 17 bucks when this disc will be spinning all winter at the Starbucks down the block? B-