Album Review: “But You Cain’t Use my Phone” by Erykah Badu, or, Phones are pervasive, destructive, time-sucking distractions from real-life communication with the people right in front of us. Also: Hotline Bling explained. By Donnie Boman

Multimedia, Prose




I am addicted to my cell phone.

I can’t stop looking at it. I wait for it to do something. My attention span is shot and I often can’t communicate with the person right in front of me because I am either looking at my phone, or thinking, hey, I need to look at my phone. This person in front of me gets nothing from me, but I rarely get anything either, not from my companion (but what exactly am I trying to get there if I’m not even paying attention?), but from my phone. I just wait around for it to act. I play around on the Internet, looking for stuff. I browse Facebook and Instagram, looking at various posts and pictures. But really, I am waiting for someone to call or text or email. I might not respond, but at least there is something coming in to give me a fix. I long for someone to reach out through my device. The same person as above could text me or mention my Twitter handle and I’d be all about that. I might pay attention to that. I might respond, or not, but I know they’re thinking of me. I’m feeling like I might be getting a bit desensitized to real life. It’s all kind of a wash. I long for my cell phone to deliver something to me. I’m a junky. So then, there too, I am becoming desensitized be needing more and more of the drug to sustain myself. I now need *constant* validation by bling and vibration. I love my cell phone. I hate my cell phone.

I feel shame in my addiction.

(And I get nervous if I don’t have my phone on my person at all times. The threat of anxiety attacks looms. What did I do without a cell phone? I’m tethered.)

But this is *not just me.* everyone is looking at their cell phone. Always. All the time. Maybe someone is going to email me? Text me? Maybe they’ll look for me on Instagram because they just saw me take a picture in Real Life of something very interesting that the world needs to see. They’re going to look me up. They are going to message me and say “Hey, cool pic.” Besides, all memories are now captured by the cell phone camera and are not quite experienced the way a photo might suggest.

Or maybe they, too, were zoned out, also shunning outward stimuli, just looking at their phone and not really seeing anything beyond the screen. Were they glazed into a zombie state listening to music and thinking about some colored-tile game?

I love Spotify. Giving me a boost – aural stimulus – these playlist-makers are curating collections, all for me. Recently, they directed me to Erykah Badu’s latest album, “But You Cain’t Use My Phone.” It’s all about phones. Perfect! I’m on my phone! I will now hear about it. Cool.

But Badu’s album is about not how interesting I may find it to be to watch my phone. She has decided to document the change in our discourse and highlight communication dysfunction. Fucking phones. Watching them. Picking them up. Putting them down. Putting them away. It’s brilliant. Totally high art. But it’s disturbing. She makes me feel even more shameful. But she points out that we all have the cell phone problem. It’s a societal issue. Phones are pervasive, destructive, time-sucking distractions from real-life communication with the people right in front of us. Jesus.

Badu starts off the album trying to reach us by saying “Hello Hello Hey Hello Hello,” over and over, but there’s no answer to her calls. Beep beep beep boop boop boop beep ring ring beep. Then, the anchor of the album, a cover of Drake’s heavily played 2015 song, “Hotline Bling,” which she’s called “Cel U Lar Device.” Presumptively, the song is all about late night booty calls. It’s really about anticipated communication and love. The album continues on with each track, or part of a mixed track, dissecting this alienation via cell phone in different ways.

Badu has sent up a brilliant philosophical rumination on the theme of (non)communication: miscommunication, missed communication, anticipated communication. The sheer inability to communicate. Cell phones are supposed to help us. To make it easier to get ahold of one another. But they tend to enable addiction and obsession, to and with the phone. This inhibits off-phone, in-person communication. We can’t communicate with our phone, itself. Well, maybe we think we can, but it’s a dangerously one-sided conversation and dangerously internal.

Badu includes a Ray Parker, Jr. song on the album, “Mr. Telephone Man.” It says, “Something wrong with my mind / Plagued every time.” There’s something there.


Hey. You don’t call me anymore. I keep looking at my phone, waiting for your call. Did I screw things up? I know we broke up, but I just want you to call. Just being with you is all I want, even if it’s just hooking up. I miss you.

When you used to call, I’d look at my cell phone and see it was you and knew you wanted to see me. I wanted you to want me. I wanted you.

I know I moved away, so we kind of broke up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t call me anymore.

I know you started going out and doing things without me, but yeah, that’s for granted. But I didn’t like the people you were hanging out with. Why are you trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not?

Even after I moved, we saw each other every now and again, and it seemed like things were the same. We would hang out, ride around, talk about shit. My friends told me our relationship was over, but I told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. I wanted to think it wasn’t over. But I started to realize that you really had changed. Our relationship had changed. You started calling me just to hook up. Yeah, you said you loved me, but I don’t believe that anymore. I know that’s not the way things are anymore.

But I still want to see you, you know? Now I’m just staring at the phone and waiting for it to ring. I know when it rings that means you want to see me. Don’t you still want to see me? I know it’s late, but are you up?

Text me?

“Hotline Bling” is a very sad song.


Donnie Boman does the Ohio Edit Instagram.