Friday, February 25, 2005

Out of the Woods

With pleasure and personality, Jill Scott has come to set neo-soul straight.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Has any musical subgenre underachieved more of late than neo-soul?

It's understandable that a sizable portion of R&B's target audience would turn against the cartoonish limitations of that music's recent perpetual-after-party vibe and instead seek a worldview that is more rounded and grounded, that reflects the diversity of experience in the listeners' daily lives. But to reject the mainstream's sleek post-disco grooves and state-of-the-art hip-hop-bred beats along with its lyrical content might be to confuse baby with bathwater.

It didn't have to be this way. Neo-soul's first and last masterpiece, D'Angelo's 2000 opus Voodoo, may not have been music to get drunk (or crunk) to, but it was built on a separate-but-equal sonic foundation, a headphone-funk classic nearly on a par with the classics of the form -- Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, Prince's Sign O' the Times, and Tricky's Maxinquaye.

But in the five long, silent years we've waited for a follow-up to Voodoo, the neo-soul genre has devolved musically, preferring draggy jazz-lite tempos and unobtrusive beats to music that might actually compete with the sometimes avant-garde-ish productions that make up the mainstream, um, alternative.

So, if neo-soul's relaxed, organic music (think: in the coffee shop with an herbal tea rather than in the club with a bottle full of bub) struggles to be heard amid the beat-mad clamor of its more mainstream counterpart, lyrical content should give it an edge, right? At its best, yes, as witnessed by the success of the witty/weird Erykah Badu and the now very-crossed-over Anthony Hamilton. But these have been exceptions. All too often, neo-soul's lyrical love paeans are as indistinct as Usher's club-bound come-ons. And in the absence of a compelling songwriting voice, who really wants to hear atmospheric health food such as Bilal or Musiq when R.Kelly's Smokey Robinson-worthy vocal melodies and Usher's Lil Jon beats are probably on the radio right now?

But in 2005, with D'Angelo still on indefinite hiatus and Badu drifting into the wilderness, neo-soul has a new standard-bearer, and it could do a lot worse than Jill Scott.

Scott's still held back by the genre's self-imposed musical limitations. Rarely on the late-2004 Beautifully Human -- see the stand-up-and-be-noticed beat of "Bedda at Home" -- does the music break free from its tasteful lite-jazz format. But it would be your loss if that kept you from attending to Scott, who is a total charmer -- a deft vocalist, light and lovely enough for straight jazz, and simply the best, most subtle songwriter in her little corner of the musical world.

Scott's verbal skills were apparent on her debut, Who Is Jill Scott?, where the spoken-word-over-jazz-accompaniment "Exclusively" was so economical, unpredictable, and precise that it might have qualified for Best Short Stories of 2000. But Scott's writing really flowers on Beautifully Human, which is also, happily, a more vocally and musically confident record.

On "The Fact Is (I Need You)," the catalog of domestic tasks she doesn't need your help with ranges from the knowing, charming cliché ("kill the spider above my bed") to the surely unspoken in love-song history ("I can even stain and polyurethane"). The sneaky "My Petition" starts out as a relationship metaphor only to gradually reveal a more literal intent. And the foolproof "Family Reunion" (see Kanye West's "Family Business") is a series of finely observed details skipping into the next until family tensions heat up so much that only a little Frankie Beverly on the stereo can cool things down.

But, though Scott's pen knows no limitations, her greatest subject might be the same primary subject of most other modern soul singers: S-E-X. You might argue that the surest path to heavy rotation for a young female singer these days is the sex instructional and assume that a neo-soul singer would try to combat this. (Of course, you might also point back through 40-something years of pop to "The Loco-Motion" and contend this is nothing new.)

But there's something righteous about Scott's refusal to cede this territory to MTV-approved lap dancers. The physics may not be as porn-star impressive as "Dip It Low," but Scott's "a poignant rocking back and forth alright" sure sounds like sex in the beautifully human real world.

Scott takes Topic A to compelling places (which Top 40 radio knows nothing of) all across Beautifully Human: The post-coital bliss of "Whatever" is as weird and real as anything Prince ever came up with, Scott's delirious declaration of appreciation ("You represented in the fashion of the truly gifted") yielding to comically desperate attempts to keep her partner from leaving. ("Do you want some money, baby?/How about some chicken wings?") The high-stepping lustiness of "Bedda at Home" is equally Prince-ly: "Your sexiness and vivacity makes me want to cook my favorite recipe/And place it on your table . . . Baby!" But the breathlessly scatting, coyly erotic "Cross My Mind" is all Scott's own: "How amazing/How amazing/When you spread my limbs across continents/Bump our bed/Way over that mountain's edge/Kiss this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and that/Show each other where the climax is at."

Musically, it may not be cutting-edge, but Scott boasts a mixture of pleasure and personality plenty strong enough to lead neo-soul out of the woods. n

Listening Log

Push the Button -- Chemical Brothers (Astralwerks): Onetime-would-be revolutionaries transformed into genre codgers (and lead-track guest vocalist Q-Tip knows just how they feel). In techno terms, call them the Beastie Boys to Basement Jaxx's Eminem -- more comfortable and reliable than bold and exciting but still pretty much getting it done. Bids for relevancy abound: Bush/Saddam connection here, Eastern riddim there. Best contemporary reference: the subtle Strokes riff weaving through the album-closing "Surface to Air." ("Believe," "Hold Tight London," "Marvo Ging")

Grade: B+

The Documentary -- The Game (Aftermath/G Unit/Interscope): West Coast gangsta rap, this year's model. A fiercer MC than mumble-mouthed mentor 50 Cent but with an equally rote worldview and lack of wit. Unintentionally revealing lyric: "I look down on ho's and up to Dre." ("Hate It or Love It," "Like Father, Like Son")

Grade: B-

Crunk Juice --Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (TVT): After giving Usher and Petey Pablo his crossover tracks, the hottest producer of the moment decides to keep some for himself, resulting in a record at least slightly more accessible to crunk novices than the previous Kings of Crunk. But the most memorable moments here are still among the most outré. There's nothing as overwhelming as "Get Low," Kings of Crunk's megaton bomb of rhythm and noise (I know, there's little in the history of recorded sound that matches the steam-rolling rhythmic complexity of "Get Low"), but the album is better overall. And even though there are more than a few heinous lyrics beneath these chaotic productions, there's also a self-implicating cartoonishness that takes the edge off crunk's belligerent misogyny. With Chris Rock and David Chappelle soundbites underscoring the intentional self-parody at the core, the result is kind of like a Redd Foxx album with body-rocking beats. ("Stop F***in Wit Me," "In Da Club," "Stick Dat Thang Out")

Grade: B+

Totally Country Vol. 4 -- Various Artists (Sony/BMG): For years now, most music fans have sniffed at mainstream country, the plasticity and downright hokiness of the genre as much a given as the soundalike, cookie-cutter quality of the Nashville studio machine. This brand of cultural superiority has always been ill-informed but never so much as over the last couple of years. The genre has emerged into a pop scene as interesting and diverse as anything you can find across your radio dial. Just check out volume four of this ongoing singles comp. It's essentially the country equivalent of the Top 40 Now series: redneck-rock meets calypso-and-western meets pedal-steel-fueled singalong meets Hallmark condescension meets unbearable yellow-ribbon weepie meets perfect pop-country meets perfectly awful easy-listening country meets Big & Rich's better-than-Beck multigenre crash derby. All together in an ever-expanding big-tent view of country music that you ignore at your own loss. ("Redneck Woman" -- Gretchen Wilson, "Save a Horse" -- Big & Rich, "Perfect" --Sara Evans) n --

Grade: B+

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