With D'Angelo dormant and Erykah Badu too weird and willful for mass consumption, Philly song-poet Jill Scott is the reigning monarch of what I guess we still call neo-soul: Who else in her corner of the musical world could debut #1 on Billboard, as Scott did in June with her fourth album, The Light of the Sun, or headline arenas, as she will in Memphis next week when her "Summer Block Party" lands at FedExForum?
And Scott is worthy of the throne: a bright, charming performer, a deft vocalist, and simply the best, most subtle songwriter in contemporary R&B.
These gifts were apparent in spots on Scott's somewhat overrated debut, 2000's Who Is Jill Scott?, which was held back by the draggy jazz-lite atmospherics and love-song generalities that mark neo-soul at its most mundane. But highlights like the spoken-word-over-jazz-accompaniment "Exclusively" — so economical, so unpredictable, so precise — hinted at better things to come. Scott's talents really flowered on 2004's Beautifully Human, a more vocally and musically confident record.
Though Scott's pen knows no limitations, her greatest subject might be the same as most other modern soul singers: S-E-X. But as a whipsmart, emotionally stable, normal-looking person, Scott provides a righteous counterpoint to the look-alike lap-dancers more likely to peddle Top 40 sex instructionals in recent years.
Scott takes Topic A to compelling places all across Beautifully Human, from the post-coital bliss of "Whatever" to the breathless, coyly erotic "Cross My Mind."
If the sexual material was a highlight of Beautifully Human, it was nearly the sole topic on Scott's next and best album, the conceptual 2007 song-cycle The Real Thing. At its very best, The Real Thing was 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 was funny, weird, and erotic all at once. And she purrs, scats, sighs, and shouts the hell out of it.
Plenty happened to Scott in the four years between The Real Thing and the current The Light of the Sun. She forged an acting career — nabbing a starring role in the HBO/BBC series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency — and she gave birth to a son and ended her romantic relationship with the child's father.
These facts of life influence The Light of the Sun, which is more varied but less forceful musically than The Real Thing. Motherhood makes small but crucial appearances — on the opening "Blessed" and the two-minute "Quick," about how long the relationship with the father lasted. But new realities hover over the rest — sex, fittingly, is less central and more hesitant. Scott's desire is established on songs like "Until Then (I Imagine)" and "Rolling Hills," but the sex life of the newly single mother is more in line with what Scott describes in "Making You Wait": "I'm making you wait for the fifth date/I need to know if you're worthy/Making you wait/Never too late/I need to know if you're crazy."
The Light of the Sun finds its strength more in platonic companionship than romantic intimacy. If the duet single with tourmate Anthony Hamilton, "So in Love," doesn't quite persuade, Scott's partnership with fellow Philly gal Eve sparks — classic soul filtered through hip-hop as a foundation for girl-talk camaraderie. And Scott brings in hip-hop legend Doug E. Fresh for "All Cried Out Redux," a blast of Beatles-style carnival pop reinvented with jazz vocals and human beatbox.
If The Light of the Sun is less impressive than the albums that preceded it, the guest-star highlights speak well of a tour in which Scott plays ringleader to companionable rap/soul supporting acts such as Hamilton, Fresh, and the R&B band Mint Condition.
Jill Scott's Summer Block Party
Wednesday, August 17th, 7 p.m.