Smartphones are the culmination of over a century of technological achievements. Enhanced processors, intricate circuitry, capacious storage, hyper-sensitive touchscreens – the list of innovations is lengthy, complex, and still growing. Alongside this list of advancements is an equally dense list of anxieties: which emojis to use, when and where phones are allowed, how many texts can be sent without seeming intrusive, ad nauseum. Despite their conveniences, phones, especially smartphones, are a constant source of stress, alienating and connecting in equal measure. But You Caint Use My Phone taps into this contradiction, exploring the deep ambivalence that comes with being so attached to phones.
Inspired by Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” But You Caint Use My Phone singularly focuses on phones as a muse. Badu’s first full-fledged project since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two, But You Caint Use My Phone picks up where that album left off, using personal relationships as a lens for the larger world. Produced entirely by Badu and Zach Witness, the mixtape melds soul, R&B, and hip-hop into a dazzling half-hour statement. The thrill of the brief mixtape is the thoroughness of its fascination with phones. Dial tones, voicemails, operators, text message notification sounds, radiation – Badu is interested in phones not just as symbols but as multi-purpose objects that teem with functions and quirks, infinite ways of acting in the world.
On “Cel U Lar Device,” her fuzzy and sensual reworking of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Badu injects a voicemail message into the middle of the song. The message gives callers 8 touch-tone options, many of which are hilariously snarky: “If you’re calling to beg for some shit, press 4. If you’re calling to beg for some shit and this is the pre-call before the actual begging, press 5. If you’ve already made that pre-call and this is the actual call to beg, press 6.” The humor and detail of the voicemail seem straightforward, but Badu’s being quite clever. If “Hotline Bling” is about the nostalgic joy of a past booty call – “that could only mean one thing” – “Cel U Lar Device” is about calls meaning too many things, so many things that Badu has a directory for her callers. The voicemail ends by undercutting itself entirely – “If you’re calling to say peace and don’t really fit into any of those descriptions, text me, because I don’t really answer voicemail,” Badu dryly announces before the beep – but it only emphasizes Badu’s point. A single call can communicate a world of feelings. Badu is just too jaded to deal with the calls that always waste her time.
Although the mixtape seems to be a response to the current era, especially the quasi-Luddite anthem “Phone Down,” the form and content of the tape are deeply in conversation with the past. Elements of Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call,” New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me” and Badu’s own “Tyrone,” the source of the mixtape’s title, all make appearances, subtly reminding us that phones have always been at the uncomfortable nexus of intimacy and privacy, distance and proximity. On “Dial’Afreq” Badu goes even further than human concerns, connecting our relationship to cell phones to the deaths of bee colonies. The personal is the political is the ecological.
These connections to old songs and sentiments reveal the true theme of the tape: tautology. “Hello hello, hey, hello, hello” Badu purrs on “Hello” and “Hi.” “But you can’t use my phone” Badu repeatedly declares on “Caint Use My Phone.” There’s an intrinsic redundancy at the heart of communication, especially greetings, but for Badu there’s something thrilling in that constant recurrence, the cycling between hearing a voice and hearing a voicemail, between feeling loved and feeling rejected, never knowing which will come next.
The mixtape’s composition plays with that thrill throughout, using “Hotline Bling” as a leitmotif, the song’s playful drums making regular cameos, but always doing something different. Badu’s nimble voice works similarly, stretching out into taunting melodies on “Phone Down,” reminiscent wails on “Cell U Lar Device” and hopeful croons on “What’s Yo Phone Number/Telephone.” Yet it’s always still her voice, its power stemming not just from what it is, but what it could be: a plea, a confession, a greeting or all in one.
“Tyrone” was a very clear message to no-good, deadbeat lovers: leave. Its final lyrics, “But you can’t use my phone,” were even clearer: leave immediately; I’m so done with you that I don’t even want you to linger to make the phone call that will help you leave. But You Caint Use My Phone is much less coherent, but that’s precisely its strength. Our glowing metallic appendages may be disruptive and poisoning, covered in feces and pizza particles, but they’re also connective and enriching. The trade-off isn’t sustainable, but the trade must go on. All we can do, Badu insists, is keep renegotiating the terms, powering our phones on and off but always continuing the conversation.