Grown Woman Thangs: Jill Scott Live
There have been stories about this. Breaking off a little live sumpthin’ during Divas Live 2001. A bare foot, woman-loosed rendition of “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat) at the Lady of Soul Awards. And the talk, often in hushed, stern tones about that poem, where Jilly from Philly puts that brown girl (sometime caramel) grown woman “Thickness” in perspective. Of course it was a live follow-up that made Badu real again (so call “Tyrone”) though her brilliant follow-up was lost on those same audiences. Jilly had been made “real” from the start-fried pork rind, chic-o-stick, Philly cheese steak, pink roller, braiding hair on the stoop (like Robert said “c’mon and braid my hair”), dukey chain, egg and grits real. Positive non-complicated Sistuh-girl talk for bright eyed corn-rolled gals in the hood, grown woman talk for the beauty parlor and the kitchen, while the men, the brothas, triflin’ and otherwise, be watchin’ the game, careless whispers on long walks in the rain (“love rain down on me”). This was Jilly from the git-go, so the promise that she would be captured live—Mfers still talking ‘bout the Essence Festival—was indeed a wonderful thought in an hour of mourning, terror, anger and RECOVERY. Experience: Jill Scott 826+ is a clever commercial move, providing Scott with a live forum to get at that grits and greasy groove (look you can’t eat a Philly Cheese Steak without getting your hands dirty, so you gotta lick away) that Who Is Jill Scott?: Vol. One, only hinted at and the chance to get “new” material to savagely hungry audiences needing a new dose of what Angie Stone calls “Real Soul Music”.
Live performances are where a litany of black performers from Mahailia Jackson to Joe Tex to Luther Vandross have made their money and staked their legacies and Experience: Jill Scott 826+ helps counter any thought that “Jilly from Philly” is some one-dimensional “Video” pin-up girl for VH-1 styled positivism (not mentioning any names here). Naw, Jill Scott is about grown woman thangs, as in “I’ll whup your ass if you throw shade at my man again”—grown as loving hard and passionate like sucking on that last chicken bone at the bottom of the Buffalo wing bucket. Scott speaks directly to this aspect of her music as she addresses the audience after her rendition of “Gettin’ in the Way”, the song that initially brought her to the attention of urban radio and video programmers. As brilliant as Scott’s debut was, in the real world where videos on MTV and BET read like ethnographic surveys and forms of cross-cultural ghetto surveillance (do they really do that?), ain’t nothing more appealing than a “girl-fight” and the video for “Gettin’ in the Way” was just that-you can almost here the thoughts of some of the folks in the video asking “whose ass that big girl about to whup?”
On the live disc, titled 826 for the August 26th date of the recording, Scott recalls promotional radio appearances where listeners would call in and ask why she would make a song about fighting “anotha sista”. Parodying one listener’s high pitched shrill of a comment that “Jill Scott’s supposed to be such a positive person”, Scott responds, “first off I never said that. We have this thinking that soon as we see somebody with a natural they automatically positive . . . some days I am some days I’m not. Human.” This side of Scott which is often lost in People‘s “50 Most Beautiful” photo-ops and sanitized bourgeois neo-soul documentaries, plays a starring on the “live” disc, that was recorded in August of 2001 at the “D.A.R. Constitution Hall (that would be “daughters of the american revolution” right? Holla back Marian Anderson) in Washington, D.C. Backed by her band “Fatback Taffy” (like chewing on bacon flavored Now-and-Laters I guess), Scott gives sassy, confident live spins to nine of Who Is Jill Scott’s? 17 tracks including a nine-minute version of “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E-Flat)“and an original playful ditty called “Fatback Taffy”.
Scott gives early indication of her desires to take her flow somewhere else on the opening track “A Long Walk (Groove)”. If the original studio version was a breezy swing groove—like eating passion fruit and listening to The Roots—the live version backed by Fatback Taffy’s dirty-ass funky (damn, I feel sticky) groove is more like a “long slow drag” than a “long walk”. (Scott gives the song an even stickier slow drag groove on the Red Star Sounds compilation.). For the live version of “Love Rain” which was easily the “nastiest” tracks on her studio debut (“like bowels after collard greens”), Scott lays claim to the remixed version of the song which originally featured Mos Def. Where the original song is a lament about falling too deeply, too quickly, too emphatically in infatuation, the live version with scat-jazz flourishes is transformed into a “suite” of recovery and resistance as the phrase “you broke me be I’m healing”, which Scott alternately chants, shouts and defiantly coos, becomes the new thematic basis for the song. It is one of the most striking moments of the “live” disc.
Scott gives a nod to her DC crowd with a rendition of the slap-happy “It’s Love” which borrows from the legendary DC based Go-Go traditions of Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers (“gimmie the bridge now, gimmie the bridge now, now”) and EU, who marked Go-Go’s commercial breakthrough with “Da Butt.” Whereas the studio version of the track would make Chuck Brown proud, the live version fails to impress the DC audience despite Scott’s energetic efforts. But it is on the plaintive slow grooves in which the DC audience really connects with Scott. The introduction to “Do You Remember” is greeted by audience members singing Scott’s “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh,” even before she can. Given a dark “sippi’ delta” drag, the live version is all about Scott’s rather formidable phrasing. Audience members can barely contain themselves as Scott breaks into the opening lines “Oooooh HoneeeeeY, Whyyyyy you got to be so mean”. Taking her time through the first stanza, Scott simply oozes phrasing borrowed from Dinah and Billie, relishing in her own signature voice by the time she sings “daughter of the Diaspora” reinforcing her link to the traditions of “sanger’s” “sangers”. The crowd is literally with her every step of the way, often finishing her lyrics when she slyly holds back—“Converse I think. . . .” By the time Dave Lidell is plunging his ‘bone, Scott engages the crowd in a traditional call and response (“sistas in the house, it’s time for ya’ll to open your big mouths and sing”). Wasn’t no religion happening, but it was fo’ sho church.
Such powerful evidence of the community of live performance (see Cannonball’s live “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, Donny Hathaway’s “Young, Gifted and Black” and Sister Ree’s Amazing Grace for some of the most powerful examples of this within the tradition.), is also on display on Scott’s version of “The Way”. At times the audience, singing in unison can be heard above Scott’s own voice, including a requisite scream of the wonderful moment where Scott sings “Grits” like it’s the sexiest-ass word in the language. Scott not only graciously shares aural space with the crowd, but fellow Hidden Beach artist saxophonist Mike Phillips. Scott and Phillips musical banter is so reminiscent of the wonderful live recording of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Reasons”, where Phillip Bailey’s stirring falsetto matches wits with the late saxophonist Larry Myricks.
But if Disc One is a living memory stroll thru revolution Jilly—year one—the second disc doesn’t give a hint at anything on Who Is Jill Scott?. Again drawing largely on the talents of the Touch of Jazz production collective (4Hero contributes one song), Vidal Davis (who laced Jilly tracks like “Love Rain” and “Getting’ in the Way”), and “newcomers” Darren Henson and Ivan Barias (Andre Harris is making moves . . . see MJ’s “Butterflies”), give Scott a harder and more cerebral edge, that in few cases, most notably “High Post Brotha”, will actually make Scott more accessible to the ever influential “Urban” audiences, that Who Is Jill Scott? worked hard, if incidentally, to distance itself from.
Tracks like “Gimme” and “Be Ready’ capture best the sensibilities of the “+” side of Experience: Jill Scott. Sampling Brass Construction’s “Changing”, the Ivan Barias produced “Gimme” is a high-octane (Jill a’plenty!) romp as she sings “if you want in the morning, just call my name. If you want in the evening just do the same”. The song’s chorus features Scott in a high-pitched Jilly-shrill singing “gimme, gimme, gimme (give it to me, give it to me, give to me)”. Scott gets playful at one point in the second verse, slowing down the song’s insistent pace by singing “if you want me to super freak you, s-l-o-w m-y r-o-l-l a-n-d t-e-a-c-h y-a”. With nostalgia for De-lite seemingly all the rage Scott’s “Gimmie” is on par, if not better than Macy’s “Sexual Revolution”, which will likely do wonders for reverse consumer apathy for her follow-up “Id”. With the Ted Thomas produced, “Be Ready”, Scott gives a nod to the stylings of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style” and Lina’s Stranger on Earth, which both try to give 1940s- and ‘50s-styled scatting a contemporary (urban that is) update. Whereas as Cantrell style often misses the point and Lina struggles to find the right balance (excepting the lead single “It’s Alright” which has the aesthetic down), Scott’s “Be Ready” reads like a 20th century survey of black popular music with nods to drill and step teams (it’s all in the rhythm), Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, the atomic-era disco of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (“Tommy Matolla, lives down the road . . .”) and those ghastly, ghostly backup vocals of early Funkadelic (“Can You Get to That?”).
Scott is joined by Common on the dark, sinister, and cautionary “High Post Brotha” (“every body want the supastar, who got cars and ice”). Both Common and Scott’s vocals are given that tinny AM-radio texture, which metaphorically functions as that voice in the ghetto girl’s ear, as Common cautions “let’s think who you are. You the moon baby . . . fuck supastar”. The 4hero produced “Gotta Get Up (Another Day)” breezily recalls the slice of life themes of “A Long Walk” and “The Way” as Scott laments that “I don’t want to go today, I’d rather stay home and play video games, I’d rather chill for real”. The song is a nod to the “running in place” realities of working class and lower middle-class life, where folks simply work to pay bills (“working for nothing, trying to get something, everywhere I turn there’s a bill”), but still have to find meaning in their lives (“complacency ain’t gonna get me, no, no, no, so I gotta get up”).
On the disc’s best track, Scott is joined by (presumably) Eric Roberson, who is not given credit as the co-lead, but as listed as the co-writer and back-up vocalist. Matching the playful romance of Angie Stone and Calvin Richardson’s “More than My Way” (both are currently on the mix-tape), “One Time” is like that first s-w-e-e-t taste of watermelon on that first hot-sticky day in July-a mouthful of sweetness, pleasure, and satisfaction as the duo sing “never in my wildest days did I think I’d find someone like you, I like you style, you’re swift, you’re agile, everything about stays true”. Lyrics like “you be the salt, I’ll be your pepper, give you flavor for ever” or “you be my leaf, I’ll be your tree, your very definition of breeze” brilliantly tap into the notions of bourgeois romance and ghetto-love that come together and make joints like Musiq Soulchild’s “Girl Next Door” so attractive to a wide range of “urban” audiences.
While “One Time” is as pleasing a tune that Scott has recorded, ultimately the song’s that make Soctt’s reputation on the disc are those where she allows herself to push beyond the allowable boundaries and perceptions of her music and talents. Such was the case earlier this year when Scott acquiesced to the Grammy Award’s regular desires to bring disparate artist together for a performance, and appeared with Moby and the performance artists The Blue Man Group. I have vivid memories of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby and Howard Johnson coming together in such a genre obliterating performance nearly 20 years ago. While their surreal performance of Moby’s “Natural Blues” was overshadowed by the over-hyped “duet” with Elton John and Eminem, the performance established Scott’s willingness and ability to transcend the industry imposed “R&B/neo-soul” box. It is in this spirit that Scott records “Sweet Justice”. Scott Draws on her upper register recalling the artistry of the late “songbird” Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. In the past Scott has only used her high register on Who Is Jill Scott’s? “I Think It’s Better” and “Said Enough” her stirring duet with Ronald Isley on The Isley’s Eternal. Like “Said Enough”, Scott and Vidal Davis co-wrote Sweet Justice, which samples Manheim Steamroller’s “The Sky” creating a jagged, tinny and “cold” landscape that Scott, like her performance with Moby and them Blue men, manages to humanize in the process creating a song of struggle and redemption. Scott’s warbled lyric “fight, fight, fight, never surrender” filters through the era like some soul-digitized battle hymn.
While the lyrics to “Sweet Justice” resist concrete interpretations, Scott makes clear her intentions on the track “Thickness”. Harking back to her days on the spoken word circuit in spaces like the October Gallery in Philly, that was prominently featured in the video for “The Way”, “Thickness” is a spoken word piece that was recorded live at The Tower in Philly. I’ve made the point elsewhere (see the new joint Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic) that one of the significant features of Scott’s commercial success has been her ability to privilege distinct “brown girl” spaces within the music industry—does India.Arie “Video” really hit as it did without Jilly’s success the year before?—and to create a space for “big girls” to be seen as meaningful and beautiful to audiences more familiar with the tight, bright brown that usually adorn “urban” music videos. With “Thickness” Scott address these dynamics in powerful and passionate ways that make the performance one of her most important.
Scott carefully prepares her audience for the “realness” of her piece, by telling her audience that “this is for grown folks” as she begins her narrative about a Similac-blessed (shout to Black Sheep) honey whose “big ole legs, big ole thighs, big ole hips, big ole ass, big ole tits” betray her youth—she’s 14. Scott informs the audience that, “she so big, won’t nobody even try to reach her mind”. Scott’s piece speaks to the ways that black female physicality is often reduced to a “thing” to be named and tamed in the process objectifying black woman and their sexualities. Within “ghetto publics” like those described in Scott’s poem it is black masculine privilege (and the black men who embrace it) that has the power to “name” black women—“Hear them all them ooohs and ahhhs slips as she licks her lips / They want to fuck her / They want to rub their dicks on her precious clitoris / They want to watch them big ole titties settle and part a bit / They want to talk about it tell it spread it relive the conquest how they beat on that ass and how they knocked that shit.” Along with the naming of these “bodies”, comes the silencing of their voices as Scott observes that “They like her quiet and eager, sweet and meager” often telling the young girl “shhh, don’t you complain about my other women, just drop that big thick ass on my stiffness . . . lift it, yeah girl lift it, lift it baby, drop it again, cause I ain’t your tribesman no more. I ain’t your friend. . . .”
Scott suggests that the young girl’s inability to challenge and counter her sexual objectification is the natural product a generation of young black girls who have been “been degraded, exploited, not celebrated, saturated with self-hatred / ‘Cause every time she turn on TV, what does she see? / Big ole booty, and it ain’t got nothing to do with the song / Thus her definition of beauty.” Taking on the role of the ghetto-griot (itself a role often assigned to black men), Scott moans “Oh, Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord, let her recognize the magnificence you’ve created—lift her, lift her, lift her, lift her. Let her be elevated. . . .” The lyric at once references the “lifting as we climb” theme that was the foundation of the Black Women’s Club Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the social pedestal in from where white feminine beauty standards are projected as the most desired. Like the stunning Chris Robinson directed video for Alicia Key’s “A Woman’s Worth”, Scott’s “Thickness” is an effort aimed at countering the sexist, misogynistic, and racist narratives about black women that often go unchallenged within various black publics, including entities such as BET that willingly trade in the distortion of black feminine identity with programs like Cita’s World (she the noted cyber-hoochie host) and Oh Drama.
With Experience: Jill Scott 826+, Scott presents a fuller sense of her artistry and her passions. In an industry that is seemingly fixated on youth and some of youth culture’s attendant banalities—as if banging grooves from Pink or Gwen Stefani and No Doubt is really all that more serious than being a “slave” to Britney—Scott steps up with some “grown woman” music that is sure to further solidify her position as one of the most accomplished purveyors of what Sista Stone calls “Real Soul Music”.
// Notes from the Road
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