I had to listen to Cassandra Wilson’s Belly of the Sun three times before I was convinced it was a jazz album. Recorded in her native Mississippi, at the storied rural crossroads between blues legend and plantation nightmare known as Clarksdale, Belly of the Sun initially sounds like a meticulously nuanced folk-rock production. But that impression quickly fades as you notice how nimbly Wilson’s athletic contralto changes tempo, intonation, timbre, and phrasing to improvise around intentionally amorphous arrangements of multiethnic pop. Tunes like “The Weight,” “The Waters of March,” and “Wichita Lineman” gently mutate under Wilson’s direction away from their original identities as a pop-blues, a bossa nova, and a top-40 classic.
Wilson recently told The New York Times that she wanted to record her 14th album in Clarksdale for the feel, “the tempo . . . the measurement of feeling” of her deep Southern roots. Naturally such nostalgia has both bright and dark aspects for any child of the 1960s. Wilson herself has said that the album is an oblique tribute to the civil rights movement of her youth; a mnemonic protest album of sorts. But protest albums don’t get any more subtle than this. From the sly phrase “Gimme a box of reparations” hidden in the wry center of the midtempo beat-poetry of “Justice” to the divine intervention suggested in the gospel sway of “You Got to Move,” Wilson pulls her thematic punches just enough to make sure the ones that matter most hit home.
Full of hippie-eclectic percussion and acoustic-guitar textures, Belly of the Sun would not have sounded out of place in 1971, but it’s also the kind of project we might expect from India.Arie after another couple decades. Thank God there’s a wide range of black women now in their thirties and forties making interesting music these days, for as Arie already knows, pop life isn’t always form over content, but form still has quite a grip on the star-making machinery. Yet at 46 Cassandra Wilson can sing anything from Joni Mitchell arias to Monkee teen anthems while wearing comfortable, dignified clothing and remain economically viable as a recording artist. Belly of the Sun doubles as a comforting reminder to all our twentysomething neo-divas that their options on longevity are not limited to the physically grueling Janet Jackson-Tina Turner cybervixen model.
Singer-songwriter Cherokee officially claims 27, but One World magazine pegs the artist (who recently escaped from RCA to Arista) at “30 or so”—a guess that shows more respect for dues paid than for corporate hedging and false gods of immaturity. Not that Arista—which was once famous for putting legendary queens of soul on the comeback trail and keeping them there regardless of age—should quail at supporting talent born before 1975. The label’s ongoing success with rap and new-jack pioneer Angie Stone proves that with the right song and marketing, age ain’t nothin’ but a number. And trust me, Cherokee’s second solo album, Soul Parade, has all the funk and charm and wit and savvy guest stars it needs to succeed at black radio and beyond. Cherokee’s runway-model looks don’t hurt, either, but if she keeps composing stuff this good she’ll have plenty to fall back on when her sylph-like glamour fades.
Having survived a brief former career in the early ’90s as half of the teenage alt-rock duo Auto & Cherokee, this half-black, half-Native New Yorker steps to her current collaborators with the natural inclinations of a Prince devotee steeped in the hip-hop flavors of her Brooklyn adolescence. By using Grammy-winning funk revivalist Andre 3000 of Outkast to hammer home its killer hook, her rock-inflected “Nectarine” leaves the door open for future divergence from cookie-cutter r&b trends. Equally offbeat is the seductive slow grind of “Baby I Swear,” a single designed to implant Cherokee’s “sound” (a distinctively grainy mewl that Prince would have turned into a falsetto) in the frontal lobe of every first-time listener. Though if trench warfare with the commercial competition requires it, she can also play the shrewd vocal chameleon.
Cherokee is unafraid to risk comparisons to Macy or Erykah, whose gritty textures she playfully incorporates into her smoky soprano on tunes like “A Woman Knows”—which she co-wrote with Def Soul wunderkind Musiq Soulchild—and “Lips.” But she has largely turned away from the darker, more inaccessibly idiosyncratic content which made 1999’s I Love You . . . Me. She knows that until she finds and secures an audience loyal enough to let her develop a discography 14 albums deep, she is safer running with the fraternal pack of her alt-soul contemporaries than asserting full musical independence. And whether that means composing an atmospheric ballad with Jill Scott or pulling Scratch from the Roots into the studio, Cherokee is down with the posse that gives her quirky individuality a context as well as an easy reference point for the MTV masses.
As a similar beneficiary of collective bootstrapping, Jaguar Wright can credit her album debut, Denials Delusions and Decisions, to a lengthy stint working Philly and New York nightclubs on the Roots- and Jazzyfatnasty-sponsored “Black Lily” circuit—showcases launched as a brilliant solution to the chronic lack of East Coast venues willing to promote unsigned r&b contenders, and through which both India.Arie and Jill Scott also gained early exposure. Live, Jaguar does her best to represent as a 21st-century Millie Jackson, with a little bit of Moms Mabley rawness on top. Only a black grassroots scene like “Black Lily” would even have recognized that the world needed a post-hip-hop Millie Jackson. So naturally the Roots took Wright on as a protégé, and inadvertently produced her first hit as the signature cut from the feature film The Best Man.
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.
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.