"This is Grown Shit": Jaguar Wright is Unplugged
Yeah I’m black and I wear braids sometimes. I’m more neo-soul than Blu Cantrell or Faith Evans or Usher! Those motherfuckers sing R&B—they don’t sing soul music . . .
—Jaguar Wright (City Paper, 31 January 2002)
As always there’s the buzz and since the debut of the Okayplayer site in early 2000, everything remotely connected to the site and its flagship artists The Roots, generates its own self-contained promotional campaign. The critical success of Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and the debuts of both Jill Scott and Bilal are the best testaments to the site’s influence. And such was the case with Denials, Delusions, and Decisions the oft-delayed debut by Jaguar Wright. But Wright acquired buzz in ways never expected due to a “controversial” collaboration between the Roots and Jay Z as Wright served as the primary backing vocalists during the Jay Z’s recent Unplugged performance. The highlight of Jigga’s performance was an inspired version of “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” as the song taken to new heights by his vocal exchange with Wright. Wright come off as tame during the song first chorus (taken straight from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s classic version), but decides to take it to church on the second chorus as Jay can be heard in the background “ok, I feel ya, ma”. That moment helped transformed the listening studio into the church of ‘Hova and Jaguar into a High Priestess. The latter exchange of “Ain’t No” by the two is about as soulful and moving as hip-hop has ever allowed itself to be. Even the so-called “Queen of Hip-hop Soul” had to up her game when she joined Jay on stage for a rendition of their classic “Can’t Knock the Hustle.”
While Jay Z, Nas and The Roots are exchanging crossfire—instigated by New York’s HOT 97 (Vibe Magazine style)—Jaguar Wright took the opportunity to come up in the world. The day after the performance debuted on MTV 2, everybody was asking, who was that “chick” with Jigga. The 24-year-old Wright has been in the game for about a decade getting an early start as an MC in the group Philly Blunts. But her real opportunity came in 1999 at a Black Lilly performance (a browned-skinned and Philly-blunted Lillith Fair) were she was the opening act for a set that included The Jazzy FatNastees, Res and Jill Scott all backed by The Roots. Months later Wright was writing and singing hooks for The Roots, including the hook to “What Ya Want” (a song initially intended for Blige) the lead single from the soundtrack for the Best Man. When Wright joined The Roots for a performance of the song on Chris Rock in late 1999, it was clear that she was gonna be a fo’ real deal.
With Denials, Delusions, and Decisions Wright delivers the “fo’ real deal” with a style liberally informed by fo’ real Soul (mack) Divas like Millie Jackson, Betty Wright, Etta James, and Patti Labelle. Wright’s style is like one of them defiant, smack talking 12-year-old shorties whose hell-raising in the playground changes the world and perspectives in the real-time of the grown world and if Jaguar Wright is anything, she is a grown woman. As she notes in the same City Paper piece quoted above, “I make cussin’ sound natural. I’m not vulgar. I make grown-folks music; I don’t make music for kids. It’s grown language, talking ‘bout grown shit for grown people.” Such is the case with the two tracks that form the artistic soil of Denials, Delusions, and Decisions.
“Same Sh*t Different Day” (parts 1 & 2) recall the brilliantly surreal and mischievous themes of D’Angelo’s “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” (Brown Sugar, 1995) or Common’s “A Film Called Pimp”. “Same Shit Different Day” (part 1), co-produced by the Soulquarian maestro keyboardist James Poyser drop a melodic nod to old-school Philly-ites Hall and Oates and their unforgettable “Sarah Smile.” The title is reference to one of those tried and true ghetto folkisms—don’t matter the day, shit’s still the same. In this context Wright is fretting about the love-trio that she wants no part of (“you did shit (but we both agree)/and your not you (and she’s not me)/I fell like (I’ve been abused)/I mean it’s like (hand me down shoes) . . . I feel divorced on my anniversary.” It’s still the same “shit’ on part 2, but quite a different day as Wright gets her rapid flow all up in the other woman’s ass with lyrics like “why I got to be the bigger woman/ when these bitches know they got that shit coming/Fuck what’s wrong and what’s right/I’m fuckin’ up this bitch tonight”. Like Jill Scott’s spoken introduction to “Getting in the Way” on her recent live disc, counters the general perception that “neo-soul” is inherently peaceful and “positive.” As the background vocalist sing “you got to think about what people will say,” Wright instead defiantly asserts that she “ain’t takin’ this shit no more.” However defiant Wright is in either version of the song, she is forced to accept the feeling that her life “ain’t shit” without her man.
The themes of infidelity and the “other woman” also frame the brilliant “What If” which was one of the songs that Wright performed during her first appearance at Black Lily in 1999. Produced by Scott Storch, “What If” is a smoothed out diatribe that places the blame for her condition firmly on her wandering man she laments “I got all the right questions/and you got all the wrong answers/And I got all of the sadness/And you got all of the laughter.” Trying to bring some meaning to her situation she admits that she can’t “blame it love, it’s common sense it plays its part/Can’t blame it on you, ‘cause you don’t rule my heart/Can’t blame it on her, ‘cause she can’t be that smart.”
Wright and producer Storch drop a nod to Rufus with Chaka Khan (“Tell Me Something Good”) on “2 Too Many” another song dealing with infidelity. Roots front-man Black Thought makes two cameos on the tracks “Ain’t Nobody Playin’” and “I Don’t Know.” Like fellow chanteuse Keke Wyatt, who tackled Patti Labelle’s classic “If Only You Knew” on her debut Soul Sista, Wright also pays tribute to Labelle with a competent, if uninspiring version of “Love, Need, and Want You” a lesser known gem from the same recording that featured “If Only You Knew.”
Other standouts on Denials, Delusions and Decisions include “Self-Love” and “I Can’t Wait”. The latter track features Bilal in a freaky bit of creeping (“here I am drawers in hand/housewife going, think she won’t be back ‘till 10am”). Written by Wright with James Poyser and Ed King, the song recalls Prince’s Purple Rain, period, specifically tracks like the legendary b-sides “Erotic City” and “17 Days”. The damn near 10-minute “Self-Love” is an exploration of self and community. In one extraordinary segment Wright sings, “life it passes you by and if don’t get up off you ass/I’m telling you its gonna fly, the time’s gonna fly/and you’ll find yourself about 50 years old and sitting up on a porch with your grand-kids/but you what man, you ain’t got shit to tell them . . . and you ain’t got shit/your shit fucked up.” Towards the end of the song Wright laments “It’s real simple . . . get up off of your ass/forget the past, and remember that the future is the only thing you fuckin’ got, so run with that shit.” The song taps into a mood found also in the recent music of De La Soul and The Dungeon Family, (specifically the track “Rollin’” where the Goodie Rev. Cee Lo sings “Until you’re really ready to say fuck your fears, you are not alive”), where the events of 9/11 have brought so many within the post-soul and hip-hop generation in touch with mortality in ways that “do OGs go to heaven?’ posturing of the 1990s only hinted at.