It's no mystery why the world needed neo-soul: A sizable portion of R&B's target audience was destined to turn against the cartoonish limitations of that music's now-decade-long perpetual-after-party vibe and instead seek a musical worldview more rounded and grounded, that reflects the diversity of experience in the listeners' daily lives.
But the extent to which the genre has remained so subcultural seems to have more to do with musical limitations than demographic destiny. The genre bloomed a decade ago with attention-getting sonics (D'Angelo's Voodoo) and compelling quirks (Erykah Badu's Baduizm). The genre's first and last masterpiece, 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 tour de force 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.
Since that heady period, the genre has devolved into generics. Musically, draggy jazz-lite tempos and unobtrusive beats have won out over D'Angelo's ambitious soundscapes. Lyrically, the success of something-to-says like Badu and Anthony Hamilton have been exceptions. All too often, neo-soul's lyrical love paeans have been as indistinct as Usher's club-bound come-ons.
With D'Angelo missing in action since Voodoo and Badu's output erratic, Philly soulster and Roots protégée Jill Scott has become the scene's true standard-bearer. She's the genre's reigning poet laureate — a strong, precise lyricist in a genre without many.
Scott has generally been held back by the neo-soul's self-imposed musical limitations, though the slow-jam, tea-sipping groove on 2007's The Real Thing digs deeper than before. 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, 2000's Who Is Jill Scott?, where the spoken-word-over-jazz-accompaniment "Exclusively" was so economical and unpredictable that it might have qualified for Best American Short Stories of 2000. But Scott's writing really flowered on Beautifully Human, which was 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.
Though Scott's pen knows no limitations, her greatest subject might be the same primary subject of most modern soul singers: S-E-X.
Scott takes Topic A to compelling places 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. The high-stepping lustiness of "Bedda at Home" is equally Princely: "Your sexiness and vivacity makes me want to cook my favorite recipe/And place it on your table . . . Baby!"
After giving well-rounded self portraits on her first two albums, Scott turns Topic A into the whole alphabet on The Real Thing, a concept album about one woman's love and sex life that, after a couple of opening statements of musical purpose, follows one relationship through its dissolution into a bout of the "Celibacy Blues" and back into the emotional and physical renewal of a new partnership.
After a couple minutes of sexual play-by-play on "Crown Royal" (which is like "The Loco-Motion" gone R-rated), Scott's descriptions get loopy and poetic over a rattling beat on "Epiphany." She finds out her man is marrying another on "My Love," is crippled by "Insomnia," and then is wracked by inactivity in "Celibacy Blues," a brief, acoustic-guitar-driven lament that playfully references the R&B classic "Since I Don't Have You." ("I get some new batteries most every night," Scott cracks.) All this sets up a closing three-song quiet storm of a finale that's as strong a stretch of music as found on any R&B record this decade.
At its very best, The Real Thing is a sex album as clinically carnal as Dirty Mind-era Prince and as warm and mature as Sign O' the Times-era Prince. Praising her lover for doing her "as if this year's harvest depended on it," Scott's career peak is funny, weird, and erotic all at once. And she purrs, scats, sighs, and shouts the hell out of it.