By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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A year after the debut of her critically acclaimed first album, there are those who are still asking, "Who is Jill Scott?" You can hardly blame them, because the answer is multiple choice. Scott is R&B's latest It Girl and the current poster child for the neo-soul movement (see: Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu), a captivating throwback to the days when emotions and musicians were authentic. She's a multitalented singer-songwriter with a trio of Grammy nominations in the past year, including Best New Artist and Female R&B Vocalist. She's also a homegirl from North Philly who spent her time cultivating the art of the spoken word while performing at poetry slams in local clubs. And to those who have had the opportunity to experience Who is Jill Scott?: Words & Sounds, Vol I.--around 1.5 million, at last count--she is a quintessential artist, painting lyrical pictures of real life and real love that are at once both sultry and innocent, erotic and romantic.
Who is Jill Scott? answered that question, although its eclectic nature might have just confused the issue. Scott's soulful blend of R&B, jazz, hip-hop and funk moved Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn to say Who is Jill Scott? "exhibit[s] the sexual aggressiveness of Prince, the sisterhoood humor and combat of Millie Jackson and the social consciousness of Curtis Mayfield." Meanwhile, it caused Rolling Stone's Barry Walters to recall "the heady lyrical gifts of Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Teena Marie and Nikki Giovanni." And other critics likened the 29-year-old Scott's first solo effort to '70s greats Minnie Riperton and Roberta Flack, calling her music both "buoyant" and "introspective."
Buoyant? Sure. Introspective? Definitely. But Scott is more than that, with the kind of talent that overwhelms easy recommended-if-you-like comparisons. In an era in which R&B artists have taken to denigrating the power of love, Scott's album celebrates it in all its varied forms, even to the point of giving fans a deeply intimate look into her own love affair with her fiance, Lyzel Williams, a graphic artist and DJ.
"As an artist, the intent is to open your soul and revel in it," Scott says. "Sometimes that's difficult to do, but you have to...you have to be true."
Scott opens her soul on Who is..., never hiding behind her emotions. With slinky hits such as "A Long Walk" and "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)," both references to Williams, she makes an intimate connection with listeners, as though she's picking up a conversation with an old friend. In "A Long Walk," the beat is measured and effortless, reminiscent of a romantic stroll, hand in hand with a lover on a warm summer's day. Aside from the imagery, the album is a definitive showcase of Scott's range as a singer, capturing the earthy quality of her voice.
While Scott does show off her voice on the disc, the album's true power is found in the lyrics. Scott is highly adept at capturing the tiniest details and weaving intricate and vivid word pictures that give even the most mundane minutiae a prominent showing. In "A Long Walk," for example, Scott offers up subtle, yet intriguing possibilities in the opening lines: "You're here, I'm pleased/I really dig your company/Your style, your smile/Your peace mentality/Lord, have mercy on me/I was blind, now I can see/What a king is supposed to be/Baby, I feel free/Come on and go with me/Let's take a long walk."
The fact that Scott is a talented lyricist comes as no surprise. She's been writing poetry since she was a child, and, since dropping out of Temple University where she studied secondary education, she's been delivering soul-stirring performances as a member of Philadelphia's burgeoning arts scene. With plans to become a high school English teacher placed on hold indefinitely, Scott focused on her writing, but it wasn't until the summer of 1999 that she penned her first song. A friend had given her a tape of music, and she wrote the lyrics to what would eventually become "A Long Walk" while on her way to an audition. She recalls that when she heard the beat, the words just started coming.
"It's like having to go to the bathroom," Scott says of her writing. "When you got to go, you got to go. You have to obey the urge, otherwise you miss it. When I write, it's quiet in my mind. I hear the poetry; I hear the harmonies, the melodies, the percussion..." Since her first fledgling attempt, Scott has written or co-written 52 songs; her favorites, obviously, ended up on Who Is Jill Scott?. She's become a highly sought-after songwriter in the process, collaborating with fellow Philadelphia natives The Roots and Will Smith, as well as Common. Her collaboration with The Roots on "You Got Me," the lead single off their fourth album Things Fall Apart, earned the group a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1999.
It should have been Scott's first twirl in the spotlight, but before it was recorded, Erykah Badu replaced Scott on the song (who was originally slated to perform) when record executives decided a bigger name was needed to garner the commercial push that would make the song a hit. Undaunted, Scott hooked up with another Philly native, Fresh Prince sidekick DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes), who helped produce Who Is Jill Scott?.