Who Isn’t Jill Scott?

I used to call artists like Nikka Costa, Res, Sunshine Anderson, India.Arie, and Pru "anti-divas." It was the kind of compact, catchy term that could spice up a daily-story lead, headline, or nut graf, without much fuss or need for explanation. But that was way back when you could milk the "she's different from Whitney and Janet" angle without getting called on it. Now, more than a few people would raise an eyebrow at the notion that Kina, Macy, Jill, et al., occupy some XFL version of the r&b universe—not to mention any attempt to define them by their ability not to be Mary J. or Beyoncé. By now, they're the mainstream.

But if the "anti" part doesn't cut it, the "diva" part still does, since all use solid vocal and instrumental chops and often cleverly recombinant songwriting to work their respective approaches for all they're worth. So if you are the labeling type (we writers invariably are, either by force of habit or convenience), it's better to custom-make one. Like an "I'd rather be in the studio, but they put me in front of a camera in this ugly-assed outfit" diva. Or an "I'm queen of all media even though my last album had beats only Manolo Blahnik could love" diva.

Or, in the case of Nikka Costa, a "let's see if you are hip enough to figure out my angle" diva. It's easy to do a doubletake at the package: white girl backing it up to the gene-spliced groove of "Like a Feather" on MTV2. Easy, that is, if you forget Betty Davis (whose essential work is available only on import), Teena Marie, Nona Hendryx, Brit P-clone Ruth Copeland, and the scores of other female funk-rockers that have gotten shouldered out of mainstream music theorizing. It's neither fruitful nor fair to compare Costa to any of them—the "what if they were around today?" arguments are best left to ESPN Classic. It's just that getting the context straight makes it easier to dispense with the "she's so unusual" rhetorical clutter.

Pru is smarter than you.
photo: Kwaku Alston
Pru is smarter than you.

Details

Sunshine Anderson
Your Woman
Soulife/Atlantic

Nikka Costa
Everybody Got Their Something
Cheeba Sound/Virgin

India.Arie
Acoustic Soul
Motown/Universal

Pru
Pru
Capitol

Res
How I Do
MCA

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Which is especially useful to do in Costa's case, since there are plenty of reasons to like Everybody Got Their Something on its own terms. She doles out squirmy beats and jackhammer rock in pre-rationed doses, referencing the standard Sly (the title tune's "If You Want Me to Stay" motif) and Hendrix, then adding snippets of rare groove for the Ford-era babies; her choice of collaborators is predictably impressive—funk-soul keyboard guru Billy Preston, Soulquarians James Poyser, Pino Pallodino, and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. The only surprise is that the scion of a big-band leader (and the goddaughter of Sinatra) would prove more belter than crooner. But she hits her stride with double-knit-fusing intensity on the smash-mouthed "Hope It Felt Good," floats over "Some Kind of Beautiful," and rides the swelling "Nothing" like Chris Cornell's alien-abducted sister. After that, her acoustic-padded "Push & Pull" and Cherry Moon-ish "Corners of My Mind" seem like rest periods, forcing her hunter-gatherer voice into a slightly awkward rock-ballad nest.

Where Costa rises on her ability to turn obviousness into a strength, Res is a bit more the "sleight of hand" diva. Even though she's from Philly, Res (say "Reese") on How I Do eschews the smooth soul favored by her contemporaries. Instead she opts to flavor her tunesmithing with college-rock lilt, accented by aural backdrops that hint at her various bags while denying fealty to any. "They Say Vision," with its chugging bass and keening Toto reference, is rock then not, hip-hop then not. Ditto the stealthy orchestral loop that runs underneath the title track's chorus, and "Ice King" 's soul harmonizing dropped over an understated reggae bass and dinkily lo-fi guitar. And her hands are always quicker than your ears (see the hidden rock meltdown that closes the disc), courtesy a voice that owes more to Stevie Nicks than, say, to Chaka.

It'd be easy to call all this an affected stab at cleverness if it weren't for the fact that Res seems least convincing when she's direct, as on "Sittin' Back" 's "nigga what" refrain. And when the tunes stray just to one side of the mark, it's not from overt artiness. More like a lack of it: "I've Known the Garden" meanders through a nondescript guitar-cum-programmed-beat background. Res's commitment to her personal muse is commendable, but you wish she had chosen to slice off a couple more chunks from the usual stylistic pies, just for the sake of getting something that'd stick to your ribs.

Sunshine Anderson is on more familiar ground: Your Woman follows a "relationship" theme. The "more concept than I need" diva's 18 songs (including skits and interludes) chronicle various stages of romance, infatuation, and heartbreak. Producer and Soulife label prexy Mike City (whose relationship with Anderson dates back to their North Carolina college days) gets a good deal of the credit, on her breezy breakthrough single "Heard It All Before" for starters; besides lacing tracks with creamy soul-hop grooves, he does a good job cowriting female-perspective lyrics. "Save the Day" makes routine workweek problem solving seem positively sexy. But Anderson's pipes (which, ironically, inspire Blige comparisons) match City's production prowess, blowing forcefully through the slow-drag "Crazy Love" and the "Crush on You"-influenced "You Do You." While it's always cool to run into an album emphasizing narrative, it's even cooler to see it pulled off with insinuating, unobtrusive style by someone who would be worth the listen even if she stopped making sense.

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