Nostalgia Alert! Jump back a decade and enjoy the best songs of 2011. They are headlined by a synthpop classic, a massive hit from a hot diva, pristine harmonies of a young band headed for greatness.
It's tempting to proclaim this moment in black pop as something akin to 2018's political Year of the Woman -- Year of the Sista, if you will. But today's unapologetically progressive female black pop artists stand on the shoulders of a most impressive cohort from the '90s and early '00s.
“You know, I been enjoying people who love each other.”
It’s one of the most touching lines Jill Scott has ever penned. It’s also a line that doesn’t come without its share of hard lessons learned through the years. Instead of being angry or resentful, like on 2007’s “Hate on Me” or 2011’s “Quick” and “All Cried Out Redux”, that’s the line of a woman who is still weathering a storm through which she can finally see sunlight somewhere, even if it’s miles away. No more bitterness; just acceptance. Acceptance of all the good. Acceptance of all the bad.
It’s a theme that paints Woman in the same way heartbreak embedded itself in The Light of the Sun. These 16 tracks shine a spotlight on the weird place between forgiveness and sadness. A phrase like “taking responsibility” comes to mind, but it doesn’t occur without a pain with which the singer clearly continues to wrestle. It makes for a set that’s equal parts hopeful yet defeated, optimistic yet cautious.
Take the song from which that opening line comes. “Prepared” slow-jams its way through a list of get-well tips both inspiring and reflective. A proclamation of how much Scott wants to be sure she’s got herself right (just in case Mr. Right comes along), it’s one of the most adult songs the Philly songstress has recorded. “I been apologizing to some people / Some bridges I needed to mend”, she sings and it’s a stark contrast from the “I’m not afraid of / What I gotta pay for” refrain that carried the most famous song off a record that came only two albums ago.
Yet that humility only lasts so long. Single “Fool’s Gold” casts blame on an ex-lover who turned out to be anything but the man he sold himself as. Heavy on subdued hip-hop production from D.K. the Punisher, it marks a departure from some of the uptempo singles Scott has written in the past. She’s not just hurt here; she’s disgusted. Disgusted at herself for falling for his lies. Disgusted at him for turning out to be the cliche of all manly cliches.
Which, in turn, would explain a track like the spoken-word opener “Wild Cookie”. Setting the tone for a contempt-fueled collection of songs, you know exactly how unforgiving she is when she offers up a line like this: “Now wild cookie choices lead to lonely pregnancy.” It’s as though she’s writing from a place of hurt that she didn’t even previously know she had. “Cruisin” has the same weary eyes, this time toned down by way of the self-reflection noted earlier. She might not be ready for love yet, but she wants to be.
Unless, of course, she comes across another one of those scoundrels who forced reluctance upon her in the first place. “Closure”, one of the five best songs Jill Scott has ever put on a record, is a ball of fun, a musical how-to kit of how to get the last laugh in lost love. Backed by retrofitted soul, a killer horn section and distorted vocals that surprisingly do her well, the track is a derecho storm of diss. No, there won’t be any breakfast waiting for anyone in the morning, and if that request to leave out the back door doesn’t sting, you’re missing the point. She’s rarely sounded more impassioned and emboldened; it’s a boisterous slice of perfection.
Elsewhere, she puts on her mother cap for a series of loving-yet-spotty tunes. “Run Run Run” switches up her neo-soul flair for an approach that wouldn’t be out of place on a Janelle Monae album. With tambourines-a-many and showtune-esque horns, it marks a switch in direction that doesn’t necessarily enhance anything. All told, it feels like a weird play to capitalize on a Pharrell-obsessed, over-produced world of pop music. “Back Together” is much better, a doo-wop ballad that recalls Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love Is”. The words take on an especially poignant tone when you view it in the light of it being about her son (she has said in the past that it is). It might not be what you’re used to from Jill Scott, but it’s the complete antithesis of “Run Run Run” in that the showbiz-y production works to her advantage. She’s never lacked soul, and this puts that reality front and center.
Which, after all is said and done, is what makes Woman such an interesting listen: her conflicted soul. For the past couple records, Jill Scott has been borderline obsessed with establishing herself as a strong, battle-tested person. It’s part of her appeal. This time, though, she wrestles with doubt and anger and what it actually takes to establish a new beginning in one’s life. On her other records, achieving as much seemed as simple as accruing strength. Here, however, she’s confronted with the reality of how difficult pressing the reset button can be. There’s no posturing. It’s just humanity. And with humanity comes complications and clarity, hope and hopelessness, regrets and rebuilding.
She once said that in order to love each other, you have to love yourselves first. These songs mark the first real step toward being on the other end of people-watching those couples she enjoys being around at this point in her life.