Of Endless Abstraction and Lazy Vocals: Reviewing Jill Scott’s Beautifully Human

Jill Scott as a little girl with pig tails

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision.

I have been toying with writing reviews of Jill Scott’s 3 albums for about a year. My reluctance has always been more that I felt I would never be able to articulate all the things that make Jill Scott, for me, an aural snooze while still making it known to you readers that I still think that she is one of the greatest talents working.

This tension is what makes Jill Scott so damn infuriating for me to listen to and absolutely intolerable as a media personality given that every major medium, from Ebony to MTV, thinks she’s God’s gift to contemporary soul. The almost immediate lionization of Jill Scott’s impact and her work makes it that much harder as a cultural critic to seriously interrogate what is working and not working in her music.

Most importantly, it makes it nearly impossible to talk to people about Jill Scott seriously because much of her appeal lies in ephemeral ideas of “true Blackness”, “down-home sistah”-ness and “round-the-way girl” familiarity. And one is immediately labeled “a hater” for having anything critical to say of a sistah doin’ “good”.

With Beautifully Human much of this abstract appeal is still in effect, but Jill’s lyricism is getting sharper. It’s a nice maturation from the mess that was Who is Jill Scott.

Jill Scott has always been far more pretense than inhabitation, more affect than effect, and certainly more abstraction than specificity (her most maddening flaw). Her songs exist in that easy place where she calls to mind myriad of images instead of using specific images in a unique and interesting way. Instead of giving her own voice to her ideas, Jill does the coffee-house abstraction that is all too familiar and far too overdone.

In some cases this can work. Golden’s verses are a mishmash of poetic images that could never work in a poem as they are too vague and abstract. But as a song, Jill’s voice gives gorgeous weight to the idea of life being wonderful, simply because one takes control of it. The hook is irritating as all hell, but this is one of the few songs where the strength of Jill’s voice is evident throughout.

In other places, well, the abstraction just doesn’t work. The album starts off in a weird place. I’m Not Afraid is stilted in its execution of being everything for a man including his “whore” and his “soil.” The song uses repetition in an attempt to equate womanhood with being whatever a man wants her to be. In Jill’s bourgeois mind though, because she is “not afraid” to be any of these things, it is okay to be defined by your man. It’s presented in a way that makes allowances for women like Jill Scott to say these things but other women who say the same thing are less of a woman. Women like Jill Scott choose patriarchy because it’s familiar; other women are just “pawns” in patriarchy’s chess game. Sadly, it’s still domination of women.

Let me clarify. Jill Scott was on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show a few weeks ago and Tavis said that he thinks the root of her appeal is that she writes for the Black women and makes them feel good and still manages to uplift the Black man. What Tavis was not saying was that in Jill’s music, Black women find their voice and humanity in making Black men feel like they are still center of the universe.

Take The Fact Is (I Need You). It’s a paean to the supremacy of the Black man. The song lists all the things a woman can be, but the turn of the song is that in spite of all that she needs a man to be complete. God and Buddah, the song makes me so sick. Nearly every Black woman I know loves this song. This speaks so sadly and strongly to patriarchy’s entrenchment in Black society.

That is when I really began to understand the source of Jill’s appeal to Black woman. Tavis was right. She makes allowances for woman to feel good about themselves, yes. But it’s entrenched, in I’m Not Afraid and The Fact Is (I Need You), in the caveat that—as she says in the latter, some things don’t change and women are not complete even if they are all these things—they still need a man.

Whatever is essentially an ode to being turned out and it’s less “Yay big strong Black man make me feel good” than the previous songs. It’s also frighteningly boring. The repetition, like in I’m Not Afraid, is meant to signify how quickly her man makes her wanna do “whatever” he wants.

Now I understand the need for positive images of Black love and Black relationships. But a call to patriarchal notions of incomplete women completed in relationships with a man do nothing more than make sisters feel comfortable in their desperation for a mate to rule the house despite their own accomplishments.

The love songs that are more specific work far better. Bedda At Home is an unqualified triumph because the abstraction works as conceit instead of just hanging in the air to annoy for four and a half minutes. She’s talking about all these things a man is simply to make it known that her man is still better than all this man is. In her voice you hear how her man makes her truly feel. It’s being inside a woman’s head when she sees another attractive man and goes through all the reasons she chooses to walk on by.

Talk To Me is a jazzy slice of heaven. The song specifically chronicles the lack of communication and how Jill begs and pleads with dignity for her man to talk to her. Gone is the abstraction. Gone are the ephemeral ideas of “golden,” “essence,” and the like. When the song turns it’s remarkable because the turn starts with Jill waiting on her man hand and foot (So I try another tactic/Close your eyes/Relax your mind/Cool down/Just recline….I’ll be cool baby/I’ll be quiet if you like) only to say it’s getting frustrating. Here is the one moment on the whole album where she seems aware of her tendency to go for patriarchal moves of deifying her man and calls herself on it. And then the song turns a second time to her demanding that her man share his feelings and problems with her. No more reclining. No more passion on ice. Negro, you tell me what’s up. That’s strength.

My Petition is a lovely conceit for the contract that we as a people have with our government. Andre Harris and Vidal Davis create the most beautiful soundscapes for Jill to nestle her voice in. This is the best emotive performance by Jill on the album and it’s due entirely to the melody and arrangements by Harris and Davis.

(On a side note, I think the biggest mistake made over the past 10 years in discussing this contemporary soul movement is the complete glossing over of the musicians who write the music for the Jills and D’angelos and Erykahs. Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Pete Kuzma, and specifically James Poyser (who puts down music for the Philly contingent) are the ones who make most of this music work in spite of the sometimes great, sometimes bad lyricism of the artists for whom they are composing. The Philly songwriters are the real deal and once the lyricists who are at the fore begin to write lyrics with weight, specificity and intention, the movement will really take shape.)

But back to the song. My Petition is about the loss of trust when a partner does something that you don’t agree with. It’s about unilateral decisions that affect both people and how one must deal with that. It’s the most striking and successful protest song about current American affairs.

Razool gives passionate specificity to a man that goes down a bad path in life. Again, Harris and Davis make a gorgeous track for Jill to sing over. Using Barry White’s Mellow Mood Part 1, they perfectly create a slyly suspense laden track that creates the perfect mood for the telling of Razool’s story.

These songs are the fine examples of where Jill Scott seems to be heading. At least I hope they are. The specificity is extraordinary.

However, the album has glaring missteps. Family Reunion mistakes archetype for specificity and it’s laid back pace only serves to enhance the inherent silliness of the whole concept. Cross My Mind is the one song with Jill’s spoken word and it works better than all of the similar stuff on Who Is Jill Scott, but still relies too heavily on abstraction. Can’t Explain (42nd Street Happenstance) was perhaps best left as a vague poem, instead an unintelligible song where Jill’s voice never once evokes a feeling of regret or sadness at the subject of cheating. It’s matter of fact, I suspect, purposefully. However, with lyrics this vague, the performance needs to sharpen or the song loses meaning.

The rest of the songs are average at best. They aren’t so much bad as they are thoroughly forgettable. Not Like Crazy and I Keep just beg to be given live interpretation. It’s like the mess that is A Long Walk. On record the song is maudlin abstraction, in concert it becomes fierce, well-sung abstraction. Still Here is self-congratulatory drivel masked in a bad conceit and endless abstraction. But the force of Jill’s voice nearly makes you wanna believe what she’s saying. If it weren’t so damn “I’m the truth”, I might buy it.

I have to say that listening to this album is not so much a negative or bad experience as it is a listening experience of missed opportunities. There is something about the purposeful way Jill doesn’t use her range to really dig into these songs that can make her just a snooze to listen to. We know she can really sing. But she seems to be content to treat her songs with kid gloves as if the lyrics are the Holy Grail and any vocal interpretation will crush the song to pieces. I think I could handle Jill’s endless abstraction if she sang the songs with weight, instead of approaching every song with a distant airy reverence as if the lyrics have more meaning than they do. Take Can’t Explain (42nd Street Happenstance), the opening line is I’m truly sorry baby/For what I did to you. But not once do I hear any feelings like that. The arrangement is laconic and Jill’s vocal performance backs away from any kind of interpretation. This happens far too often on the album and it only makes the abstraction more evident and more maddening.

Jill’s an artist who makes very specific choices though. Let me be clear and say that I don’t think the missteps are accidental. They were choices. I think, however, that Jill would be better served doing more work like Razool because there is point of view, weight, and she can really find interesting ways to use her voice. As long as Jill Scott’s music is treated with a hands-off reverence instead of serious critical interrogation, we might continue to get maudlin nouveau soul with all the aural earmarks of real soul, but none of the great lyricism that really made soul music definable, listenable, and worthy of reverence.

3 stars

STANDOUTS—My Petition, Bedda At Home, Talk To Me, and Razool

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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1 Response to Of Endless Abstraction and Lazy Vocals: Reviewing Jill Scott’s Beautifully Human

  1. Pingback: The Evolution of Jill Scott - tlewisisdopetlewisisdope

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