At a basic level, But You Caint Use My Phone is just Erykah Badu having fun riffing on the concept of phone-centric love songs. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” acts as the original point of inspiration, and its memorable, circular clockwork beat finds its way into several of the mixtape’s songs. The general, glowing vibe of “Hotline Bling” also helps establish the tone. Drake’s sensual night moves were already incredibly easy to get into, but when paired with Badu, the marquee name in breezy, jazzy vocalizations, the song is nothing less than magnetic. Badu’s revamp, properly titled “Cel U Lar Device”, gives you a taste of how her sound could adapt to the fabric of 2015 hip-hop. Her unraveling voice sounds fresh against the contemporary backdrop, making it never too nostalgic or too high tech. The second half slowdown in particular is a real power move, giving us a completely different take on the song’s core. It’s as if she’s showing off all the different ways she can elevate the original’s infectiousness, all the different avenues her mind takes her.
Other cribbed hooks include Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call” and a robot-voiced “Dial-A-Freak” from Uncle Jamm’s Army. When they come on, they register as little flashes of delight in the brain, and they’re funny enough to make you laugh out loud. The non-seriousness of it all explains the mixtape context, but it’s hard to write off as a throwaway when, after you push past the winks and lackadaisical freestyling, there are some neat bits to savor.
The commitment to phones as a theme, for one, is impressive. Dial tones are cut up and deployed to mimic keyboard parts, and most songs seems to find a new story about our relationship to these devices. Phones are things that keep us distracted from our lovers and getting a number is the act that unlocks new possibilities. They’re just ordinary social events, but the mixtape invites you to project bigger things about love onto them.
Closing track “Hello” is probably the most refined offering. Andre 3000’s guest verse is as clever and musical as you’d want from him, bringing out the melodies in the way we speak and turning them into hooks. When he exits the picture it’s a soulful R&B song that bears little resemblance to the light hearted jokes and references everywhere else, like it was all a creative afterburner to get here, into orbit, floating in the sublime.
It’s a funny and effortless mixtape. But there are little glints of excellence—parts of songs, particular grooves—that make it a substantial entry into the Erykah Badu canon. If nothing else, it’s a rousing successful answer to a limited prompt, and a show-off move of creative muscle. B
[Listen to But You Caint Use My Phone on Apple Music]