Scenography and Sisterwit

Philly songsmith injects the draggy funk tempos of neo-soul with intellect and honest blues

Cinematographer Arthur Jafa once wrote that racism had so diminished black men's humanity that making a movie in which a brotha simply utters the word "sorbet" would be an intervention. I suspect North Philly soul songstress Jill Scott, who sprinkles her sophomore studio album with terminology like "glutinous" and "polyurethane," has been making a similar intervention on behalf of the sistas. Her 2000 debut, Who Is Jill Scott: Words and Music Vol. 1, upped neo-soul's ante by discarding Badu's cosmic aloofness for round-the-corner sisterwit, all the while expanding on Kedar Massenburg's template for slick boho marketing. While towers fell and oil wars waged, Scott laid low, surfacing only to placate the soul babies with a 2002 live album, Experience: Jill Scott 826, that served no real purpose but to prove what we already knew—the girl ain't no studio concoction—and to jump the broom in 2003 with longtime beau Lyzel Williams.

While black women continue to find chart success by dippin' it low, Scott conjures up more introspective and literary worlds. I've always maintained that her scenographic detail and narrative economy put her in a league with a songsmith like Suzanne Vega, and anyone wanting proof should check out her slice-of-life ode to kinship (and the O'Jays), "Family Reunion": "Niecie made her famous potato salad/Somehow it turns out green/Maybe it's all the scallions/Could be the celery." On "Rahsool," a morality tale about urban violence, Scott spares no detail in describing her title character, down to his "bubble goose" jacket and "car'mel complected" skin. Two things prevent her music from becoming cerebral, however: the immediacy of her big-band projection, equal parts Shirley Bassey (minus the vinegary camp) and Minnie Riperton (minus the dog whistles), and her willingness to ground her sensibilities in the everyday honesty of the blues.

Her musical collaborators are mostly the usual Philly suspects (the Roots' James Poyser, A Touch of Jazz) bearing the expected jazz-hop grooves. But there are fewer hooks to go around this time; the soundscapes are more chilled-out, ambient even. Since D'Angelo, neo-soul metronomes have been locked to the draggy PCP-inspired funk tempos for which Sly holds the patent 30 years later, and like her peers, Scott would benefit from shapelier, upbeat grooves. Beautifully Human offers little follow-up on the jolting thrill of her 2002 single "Gimme," a refreshingly adventurous '80s synth-funk throwback. One of the few tracks that fire her up here is "Golden," a minor-chord disco thumper so exuberantly jazzy you half expect Masters at Work and Roy Ayers to take cameos. Between albums, some of Scott's most compelling releases have been the handiwork of house remixers like Jay J Hernandez and Chris Lum, whose skills at digital compression transformed slow jams like "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)" and "A Long Walk" into inspirational dancefloor anthems. (Strange that it's now DJs who remind us that soul is a feeling, not a tempo.)

Opting for literary introspection when everybody else is dippin' it low
photo: Keith Major
Opting for literary introspection when everybody else is dippin' it low

But if Beautifully Human runs low on adrenaline, it's no less significant an achievement—and no less marketable in the long run. No one has a more sophisticated take on the retro-soul favored by folks relegated to getting their Black Love fixes from Arabesque novels and UPN-9 sitcoms. Downy ballads like "The Fact (I Need You)" reaffirm how artfully Scott's wry intellect elevates simple moments of intimacy—like taking a romantic long walk—to thought-provoking gravitas, more Richard Linklater than Terry McMillan.

The publicity machines tell us that partner Lyzel inspires her songwriting, and it's his present-absence in the music that renders her matrimonial bliss less cloying and more abstract than that of such hubby-and-wife teams as Ashford & Simpson, Kenny Lattimore & Chante Moore, and Kindred the Family Soul. Beautifully Human isn't quite the conceptual masterpiece it strives to be: Too often, the music falls short of Scott's lyrical brilliance. It's a sure bet, though, over the next Will Smith & Jada Pinkett single.

 
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