Time Will Reveal

Wright's vibrant stridency sold that track, and vindicated the Roots's faith in her unorthodox timbre and the volatile persona behind it. With Mary J. Blige stepping off her throne as the de facto drama queen of Uptown USA, there was room for Wright, a vivid and prolific storyteller, to assume that iconic role. It shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen her perform that she started out as a rapper, although she found vocal-session work on one-off singles coming out of the Jersey/Philly/ New York disco corridor more lucrative. Though it's doubtful Wright is old enough to remember Millie's earliest hits, she's old enough to cite Minnie Ripperton and Marvin Gaye as her favorite "radio artists," and aspire to be "a contemporary Etta James."

And she's not too far off that mark throughout this beautifully produced album. Scott Storch, a gifted keyboardist who's previously worked studio magic with the Roots (and for Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Christina Aguilera), co-wrote four cuts, including the hooky opener, a Chi-Town ghetto blues called "The What If's." In breezy modern classics like "Country Song" and trenchant little womanist rants like "Same Shit, Different Day Pt. 1" that give room and rhythmic impetus for Wright's sassy ad-libs, James Poyser improves upon his previous work on Erykah Badu's "Mama's Gun." And in a spectacularly subversive bit of songcraft titled "I Don't Know," Jaguar and Black Thought indulge in deceptively playful verbal fisticuffs over a marvelously frothy roller-disco track.

Cherokee: so proud to live, so proud to die
photo: Tony Duran
Cherokee: so proud to live, so proud to die

Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is a constant visionary presence on this maiden voyage, along with other members of the extended Roots family. But Jaguar remains firmly at the center, as much a guiding, centrifugal force for her musicians as Cassandra Wilson is for hers. Every instrument, every keyboard and guitar riff, can be judged by how much it opens up and enhances the vocal. Like many contemporary singers, Jaguar Wright is less precise live than in the studio. But the blueprint for how she wants to sound is in her head and on her album, which suggests that given time and opportunity, perfected stagecraft will follow. In the meantime it's all about the feel, the vibe, the tempo. Tempo as a measurement of feeling. As Cassandra Wilson can testify, the evolution of a vocalist who can last tends to be parabolic: highly strategic, and vaguely circular. Therefore time is both friend and enemy to every chick singer, for time ultimately transforms each and every contender into either a peer or a has-been.

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