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Sounds as if Erykah Badu has been paying attention to the flak she’s gotten about her carefully cultivated flower-child-on-welfare persona and her lazy Southern drawl, which sometimes makes her lyrics nearly indecipherable. On her near-perfect new album, Mama’s Gun, the self-proclaimed “analog girl in a digital world” shoots back straight from the hip: “What good do your words do/If they can’t understand you?” The song “…& On” reprises “On & On” (the hit that propelled her critically acclaimed 1997 debut, Baduizm, up the charts) and finds Badu spitting out lyrics that could pass for battle rhymes—except that she targets no one in particular: “I be that gypsy/Flippin’ life game from the right brain/Ascension maintained/Rolling through like a burning flame.”

She may not high-roll like Lil’ Kim or front fake sophistication like Sade, but Badu is divaesque enough to steal both’s men, as she demonstrates on the estrogen-fueled “Booty.” Against a fractured, gum-popping groove, Badu snaps, “Ya got a Ph.D., magna cum laude/But ya nigga love me with a GED” to a potential female competitor—and then fires off an unexpectedly sisterly follow-up verse: “I don’t want him/’Cause of what he doin’ to you.” At once Mother Popcorn and Mother Earth, Badu projects a spirit that’s both wise and wiseass, able to take man-stealin’ women and unfaithful paramours in stride. She may call it Baduizm, but it’s really just plain ol’ mother wit.

Sure, she’s the oddball in a field of tight-Iceberg-wearing, neck-swerving hoochie mamas yapping about men who won’t pay their bills, bills, bills, but it’s Badu’s mother wit that keeps her ghetto-accessible. Mama’s Gun, an inspired stroke of nappy dugout funk, packs an ample supply of the stuff. The record assimilates Betty Davis’ raw nasty-gal power, Deniece Williams’ girl-next-door sweetness, and Curtis Mayfield’s keen socio-political observations. There’s nothing here as brilliant and psychologically complex as Baduizm’s “Otherside of the Game,” but Mama’s Gun is nonetheless much better than the debut.

Badu’s lyrics have matured, and her voice is slowly shaking its affected Billie Holiday-isms. She already sounds light-years beyond her debut, sustaining notes more often and even occasionally letting out a hearty wail. And thanks to associate producer James Poyser’s old-school-style arrangements, Badu’s voice is set amid rough-hewn, crunchy percussion; chocolate-shake-thick bass, smoldering keyboards, and sultry horns. Whereas Baduizm sounded like a high-quality demo, Mama’s Gun recalls the lush, early-’70s Rotary Connection, Dells, and Earth, Wind & Fire albums produced by Charles Stepney.

Given Mama’s Gun’s self-affirming ethos and sunny arrangements, male cynics are surely going to pan it as another “women’s record”—which is unfortunate, because Badu sings mostly from an everyday-people perspective. Think Donny Hathaway reincarnated as a sun goddess and you’ll have Erykah Badu. She proudly sings lines such as “This is how I look without makeup/And with no bra my ninny’s sag/Down lo,” and she scripts universal themes of personal freedom and deliverance, as on the sweetly defiant “A.D. 2000”: “No you won’t be name’n no buildings/After me/To go down dilapidated/…My name will be misstated/Surely.”

At first listen, it’s easy to assume that “Bag Lady,” the album’s lead single, is another universalist parable. But the track isn’t just a shout-out to the homeless. Listen closely to the lyrics and you’ll realize that the song is about the dangers of carrying too much emotional baggage: “Bag lady you gone hurt your back/Dragging all them bags like that/I guess nobody ever told you/All you must hold on to/Is you is you is you.” And “Green Eyes,” although initially perplexing (“My eyes are green/’Cause I eat a lot of vegetables,” Badu sings as the track opens), finds Badu confronting self-doubt as she reflects on an abusive relationship. The heavily orchestrated ballad, which features some divine horn arrangements by trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who also supplied wonderful horn charts for Common and D’Angelo albums), is Badu at her most poignant.

Not as heart-wrenching as “Green Eyes,” but on a par when it comes to aural splendor, is “Orange Moon,” which contains Badu’s most stargazing and elliptical lyrics yet. It’s not exactly clear if the song is a celebration of carnal love or an urban gospel tune, but whatever it’s about, the cut’s sumptuous arrangement, which features D’wayne Kerr’s billowy flute, is sure to stop you dead in your tracks. The album then slides into the devotional hymn “In Love With You,” on which Badu trades verses with Stephen Marley. Stripped down to spidery acoustic guitar and Badu and Marley’s swooning confessions of love, “In Love With You” is as consoling as grandma’s hands.

It’s a far cry from the harsh “Penitentiary Philosophy” Badu sings about on the album’s opening track, and it proves that you don’t have to be ghetto to survive the ghetto. Full of such moments of surprising beauty, Mama’s Gun is like a rose found in an asphalt jungle—and one of the most thoroughly compelling albums of the year. CP