‘Round the Way Soul Sista
It started with a dress. A hot little thing. A spaghetti-strapped Armani number, with a skintight bodice and a long flowing skirt, in that shade of orange that black girls do the most justice. I bought it in La-La Land precisely because it reminded me of New York in the seventies, with its sexy sistas (girls with names like Pokie, Nay-Nay, Angela, and Robin) and those leotard and dance skirt sets they used to rock back in the day. This was back when I was a shorty with cherries for breast and absolutely no ass to speak of. I used to sit on our tenement stoop mesmerized by the way those flimsy little tops knew how to hug a titie in all the right places, or the way a proper Bronx Girl Switch (two parts Switch to one part Bop) could make the skirt move like waves. Wide-eyed, I watched regla project girls transform into Black Moseses capable of parting seas of otherwise idle negroes…And I couldn’t wait to be one.
—Joan Morgan-Murray, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost
Perm in your hair or even a curly weave / With that New edition Bobby Brown button on your sleeve / I tell you come here / You say meet me half way / Cause brothers been popping that game all day / Around the way you’re like a neighborhood jewel / All the homeboys sweat you so you’re crazy cool.
—LL Cool J, “Round the Way Girl”
When I was a little Girl raised on North Philly Streets / I’d hear my people say “ghetto” was all they’d be / But my mommy would hold me, quietly give me peace / She’d look me in my eyes, and she’d say to me / If you want it to happen baby / Hold fast and believe / You can make it happen baby, you can be what you please / All you got to do is try/ then try once again / Then try a few more times/then try after then. As a teenager I dreamed to see the world / But how could I do this, me a poor black girl / And just when my will was lost / And all hope seemed set free / I remembered my mommy’s face and her telling me…
—Jill Scott, “Try”
The self-described king of “Hip-Hop” love songs, LL Cool J had embarked on a comeback of sorts with the release of his fourth recording Mama Said Knock You Out in 1990 (“Don’t call it a comeback!”...Whatever). One of the highlights of that recording and I admit there were many, was the jewel “Round the Way Girl.” The song was not only an articulation of LL’s desires to remain rooted in the Queens, New York communities that bred him but more profoundly an articulation of the affections that he held for the young women of those communities. LL was not just posturing; he eventually married a “round the way” girl after being linked publicly with many high profile women, including Quincy Jones’s daughter Kiadda.
Years before those “Round the way girls” had been recast by some male hip-hop artists as “chicken headed, baby mama, skeezer, crack hos” LL gave praise (“lord have, mercy”) to the “ghetto girl next door;” she of Sunday morning bible school, now-or-laters, double-dutch, jellies, attitude for days and days and more days of games like “run, catch and kiss,” “manhunt” and “roundup,” the latter of which were all the same if you were feening for one of those “carmelhoneymochapecanmolassesapricotfudge” shorties. However much LL gave praise to those “brown-skinned” woman-girls from around the way, he could not speak to their dreams, desires and disappointments.
That moment would come a few years later, with the release of Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? It was the pain and pleasure of Mary’s voice that reminded us that before Aretha become Diva to the masses, she too used to also be a “round the way” girl on song’s like her version of Brenda Hollaway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” or Clyde Otis’s “Take a Look.” We were reminded that many of these diva women, be they “Sista ‘Ree,” Patti, Chaka (“I’m not worthy”), Anita, Phyllis, Gladys, Whitney, Miki, Teena (not the more well known Tina) or even Janet (sorry, no last names…you’re supposed to know who these women are) were also once “‘round the way” Soul Sistas who all could tell stories about being one of those little black girls, to quote LL again, “standing at the bus stop, sucking on a lollipop.”
The tragedy is that black women are rarely allowed to tell the stories of those little black girls (unless of course they are best-selling novelists or the one black woman intellectual allowed to shine at a time) particularly within a recording industry that would rather them take their clothes instead of telling meaningful and endearing stories (are you listening Toni?). The legacy of those little black girls has been misrepresented and underpromoted within the music industry, as Dionne Farris, Sandra “Mack-Diva” St. Victor, Carleen Anderson, Amel Larreiux, and Angie Stone have become this amorphous blob named “alternative” R&B or as my man Colin Ross put it, “Organic Neo-Soul.” What is really being said is that if its not about men (“Salt ‘n Papa’s “Shoop”) or produced in the interests of male desire (“Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” video—“yeah baby, you can hate on me, but damn, you still look good”), the “sista-girl” narratives of black women are not bankable and thus not promotable, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill notwithstanding. Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol.1, the debut recording by Jill Scott challenges this reality with an artistry that is often beyond description.
A product of North Philadelphia, it is easy to compare Scott to Erykah Badu’s bluesy-soul “spirits in a material world” vibe. Those comparisons are made more real by the complex nature of their contributions to the Grammy winning Roots recording “You Got Me.” While Scott co-penned and provided the original vocal hook for the track, it was Badu’s vocals that appeared on The Roots’s commercial breakthrough (tho they still didn’t really sell no records) Things Fall Apart. As The Roots themselves have admitted, it was the presence of Badu on the track that provided them with the visibility that had eluded them in the past, though Things Fall Apart was easily their least artistically satisfying endeavor. It was in the context of their heightened visibility that they provided the context for Scott to do her thing as she has toured with the band the past two years. It was on The Roots Come Alive that audiences were first really introduced to Scott as her performance on the 15-minute plus live version of “You Got Me” is one of the highlights of the recording.
While comparisons to Badu are understandable, the fact of the matter is that Erykah Badu is no Jill Scott. There is no doubt Badu is a singular genius in her own right. Baduizm paved the way for the success of L-Boogie and the relative buzz associated with the likes of N’Dambi, the aforementioned Angie Stone and even male vocalist Chico Debarge. Whereas Badu’s music is largely filled with complex and often obscure Five-Percent Nation spirituality, Scott’s music is filled with those sister-girl-isms that get exchanged on porches and stoops along with hair grease, plastic combs, and barbecue pork rinds. It is in these spaces that brown girls get to share their stories with each other and Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 allows listeners to eavesdrop on those conversations. In this regard the recording is a clear attempt to counter the “champagne sipping, money faking” (De La, De La, De La is here) narratives found in recordings like “The Life and Times of Shawn Carter” trilogy, that are supposed to authenticate the experience of the urban black male. For Scott, “keeping it real” is acknowledging things like the fact that a former lover kept her “Wide open, wide loose, like bowels after collard greens” as she states on the project’s lead single “Love Rain.”
It is literally during the first line of the recording’s second track, “Do You Remember,” that it is clear that Jill Scott is on some other “shit” as she summons the spirits of Billie, Sarah, Dinah, Esther (Phillips), Linda (Jones) all at once as she twist, teases, and pierces the phrase “oh Honey, W h y you got to be so mean.” It is her phrasing (“like Billie on a Sunday, any Sunday but the next”) that clearly distinguishes her from the pack of would be divas and “divettes” (Yes, men can be divas too). No doubt Scott has listened to more than a few recordings from Billie, Etta (Jones not James), Nancy (Wilson) and Jimmy Scott (no relation), whose phrasing on his version of “Day by Day” should be required reading for the first year class at “Soul University.”
Jill Scott’s brilliant phrasing is also apparent on. On “Show Me” Scott sounds more Regina Belle, (who turns phrases to honey in her own right) than Belle herself has sounded in more than a decade. “I Think It’s Better” which clocks in at only 1:42, but may be one of the most profound moments on the recording. “Getting in the Way” finds Scott issuing a slow-drawl-old-school challenge to the ex-friend of her current boo. Frustrated with the ex-friends’ desires to either get back with her former boo or to at least bring enough drama into his new situation, Scott reluctantly considers violence. Her line “Queens shouldn’t swing (if you know what I mean) But I’m ‘bout ta take my earrings off/Get me some Vaseline” is priceless, particularly for those folks with vivid memories of brown-girl fist fights (“I think I saw a tittie”). The track that sets up “Getting in the Way” is a spoken word piece called “Exclusively.” Produced by Jeff Towns (yes he of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), whose production company A Touch of Jazz produced virtually all of the project, the track tells the story of a sista hitting the bodega after some “sweaty and sex funky” lovin’ and meeting a cashier girl who somehow knew her man’s sex scent. As she relates, “The new girl at the counter was…cute / Not as fine as me / Was this women’s intuition? Some kind of insecurity? / Naw cuz my man is happy at home loving me exclusively.”
Both “Getting in the Way” and “Exclusively” highlight what home-girl cultural critic Nicole Johnson calls the “tight spaces” that black women are forced to negotiate as they compete for the meager resources available to black women and their self esteems. Unwittingly, they are also forced to compete with the distorted hyper-sexual images of themselves prevalent in film, television, music videos and damn near every “urban” periodical in the world.
“Exclusively” is also one of the tracks that highlight Scott’s talents as a vocalist and spoken-word poet. There are four spoken word performances on the recording including the lead single “Love Rain” (“I felt like cayenne pepper / Red hot spicy / I felt Dizzy and Sonya, heaven and Miles between my thighs”) and the brilliant “Watching Me” which addresses the heightened surveillance of black bodies, particularly in urban spaces. On the track Scott spews “Trackin’ where I go Findin’ out all my bin ness Sa cure a ty / Video cameras locked on me / In every dressing room on every floor in every store / Damn can I get that democracy and equality and privacy /Y ou busy watchin’ me watchin’ me.”
While Who is Jill Scott? is chock full of references to the likes Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sonia Sanchez, “Watching Me” is the recording’s most overt political statement. Scott’s critique of racial profiling and the condition of “SWB” (shopping while Black) particularly resonates after the recent death of Fredrick Finley at the hands of a black security guard outside of a Lord & Taylor store in suburban Detroit, Michigan. Finley was choked to death after a confrontation with security officers who had attempted to detain his daughter, who was under suspicion for shoplifting a $4.00 plastic bracelet. The ironies of acts of racial profiling can be found in Scott’s assertion “That you’re blind baybe / You neglect to see the drugs comin’ into my community / Weapons comin’ into my community / Dirty cops in my community and you keep sayin’ that I’m free…”
Jill Scott’s “Philly” heritage is also evident throughout the recording. With the exception of the Motown recording company, Philadelphia International Records (PIR), which was founded over 30 years ago by the duo of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, remains the most recognizable corporate icon of black popular music. The recording label which at various times housed legendary performers like Teddy Pendergass, Billy Paul, The O’Jays, The Jones Girls, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and the late (tragically) and under-appreciated “Diva-of-all-Divas” Phyllis Hyman, helped craft a signature sound, with the help of Thom Bell who was responsible for the sound of The Spinners. In many ways the “Philly” sound was more distinguishable than the “Motown Sound.” Who Is Jill Scott? is reminiscent of the early recordings of The Intruders, one of the first acts that Gamble and Huff produced in the late 1960s (“Cowboy’s to Girls”), whose music helped conflate the seemingly incongruent energies of Philly’s Doo Wop past and the slickly produced and glossy sound that defined much of ‘70s Soul. In this regard, Scott’s recording melds her natural Hip-Hop sensibilities with a real love and respect for the old-school (I’m talking about a school that ranges from Billie Holiday to Valerie Simpson), without pandering to “keeping in real” dictums and “Jamming Oldies” style nostalgia. This balance is best represented to the recording’s two best tracks “A Long Walk” and “The Way.”
“A Long Walk” is a precious slice of life that documents those early moments of a new relationship, where the possibilities seem as endless as waking up on a Sunday morning is Spring. It is also the song where Scott more or less opens the audience to the full range of her emotions and interests. The song opens with a keyboard introduction that conjures memories of the opening bars of the Kool and the Gang classic “Summer Madness.” But it is the song’s rollicking bridge, where she breathlessly sings “Or maybe we can see a movie or maybe we can see a play on Saturday or maybe we can roll a tree and feel the breeze and listen to a symphony or maybe chill and just be or maybe / Maybe we can take a cruise and listen to The Roots or maybe eat some passion fruit or maybe eat some passion fruit or maybe cry the blues or maybe we can be silent…,” that captures the full brilliance of Scott’s recording. Scott literally struggles to squeeze every ounce of these desires into the finite space of the song’s bridge a process that itself becomes a metaphor for the overwhelming possibilities of the new moment that the recording itself represents. The anticipation that undergirds that relationship is found throughout “The Way,” where she sings of the joy associated with the impending visit of her “boo.” Her phrasing of the line “Made me some breakfast: toast, two scrambled eggs, grits,’ may be the best moment on what is a spectacular debut recording. Her timing in that sequence, particularly her enunciation of the word “grits” is worth the price of the recording alone. In short, throughout her debut, Jill Scott is very “Jordan-esque,” as she consistently makes the seemingly simplistic, spectacular.
In a recent panel discussion about “Hip-Hop” literature, famed black music critic Nelson George disingenuously suggested that Who is Jill Scott? was emblematic of the recording industries commitment to “alternative” black music. The recording is one of the first to be released by the Hidden Beach label (Brenda Russell’s is the other release), which was founded by former Motown executive Steve McKeever, with seed money from Michael and Juanita Jordan. SONY/Epic is the label’s distributor. While that relationship allows Hidden Beach to give their artists much more autonomy, it doesn’t mean that such a goal is shared by its distributor, particularly if it doesn’t easily correlate to record sales. As Hidden Beach’s publicity folks admitted to me a few weeks ago, even major chains in New York City only received 4 or 5 copies of the recording in the original shipment. This is compared to the “same ole, same ole” in Hip-Hop and R&B that regularly ships at least 500,000 copies.
Unfortunately, Who is Jill Scott? is destined to be among the list of brilliant, groundbreaking, and under-promoted recordings that litter the bins at used CD stores (I have literally picked up the debut projects of The Jazzyfatnastees and Calvin Richardson in such bins). The Roots, Me’shell Ndegeocello, The Family Stand and Rachelle Ferrell are all examples of artists with sustained careers that have chose “artistry” over accessibility and visibility. One is not likely to peep a Jill Scott video on BET and it is unlikely to be a “buzz clip” on MTV, though admittedly MTV felt love for Dionne Farris and Macy Gray, long before BET or black radio took an interest. I can remember the first time I head Esther Phillips sing her version of the Marvin Gaye penned “Baby I’m for Real” and wondering out loud, why I had never heard of her or her version of the song. No doubt some kid is likely to come across Who is Jill Scott? a few years from now and wonder the same thing. This is a shame, because Scott’s combination of “sista-girl” stories and artistic brilliance is likely to be one of the finest debuts that we will witness in some time.