This Is Who Jill Scott Is

14Dec07

Her first album was called Who Is Jill Scott? Her answer was basically a black woman with bohemian leanings who liked picnics in the park. But for those of us who like content/songs with our sound/demographic positioning, there was still the title question. Also the question of whether her songs would ever get as richly detailed and clever as the performance-poetry interludes, if they’d ever access the rhythmic liveliness and tunes/hooks that help make strong r&b artists.

 Her second album showed she had indeed found out how to make her poetry sing, just enough so that the continued plainness of her sound now felt like a statement of principle rather than an oversight or an underreaching.

   She illustrated Beautifully Human’s title concept with a hazy close-up cover shot of her elementary-school-age self, a counterpart to the close-up shot on the cover of Who Is?,so unrevealing you wouldn’t recognize her on stage. The point of both was that she demanded to be heard (and sold) first as a singer-songwriter, trying to avoid the looks-based marketing that have plagued all mainstream pop since MTV rose and Christopher Cross fell, but which have always been harder on women with something else to offer.  

    But if anyone thought she was just being priggish was missing the point. She just wanted us to get to know her first. On The Real Thing  she feels comfortable essaying sex scenes without allowing you to forget that she’s “a woman of substance.” Meanwhile, her singing, her funky swing, and her hooks are so upfront that “woman of substance” seems like a promise of generosity, not of haughtiness. If she’s established that she’s not gonna use sex to sell her songs, she’s ready to allow how much sex ought to fuel relationship songs.

      Sure, the sex is the best stuff on the album – possibly the most imaginative, explicit and just plain sexy musical porn from an artist of substance since Prince before he was an elder statesman — she appreciates its sensuality more than Liz Phair, and describes it more vividly and plainly than Missy Elliott.  

      She ends one heavy session with “Why do I feel so empty?” Whereupon her main squeeze goes and marries someone who “gives you everything that you ask for/ But don’t you ever want more,” pulling the uncanny trick of competing with another woman for a man’s affections in the name of feminism – i.e. unlike her, I think for myself.  And if she never brings us into a world quite as vividly as she did on “Family Reunion” from the last album, she’s finally gotten past criticisms of seeming vague or generic.

   The album’s far from perfect – although she’s made great advances in the past 7 years, I often still wish the music a little peppier in general. “How It Make You Feel”’s gospelesque chorus would have more power if it weren’t attached to a lyric that’s just too damn broadly abstract – “What if –poof- every black female in the world disappeared.”

   But everything else on the album just keeps giving more than I asked for, just like she knows we want. I don’t even fast-forward to the next sex scene – which is more than I can say for Tell Me You Love Me.  

And I don’t think even Missy Elliott has ever confessed that her vibrator needs a nightly replacement of AA’s.

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