Happy 15th Anniversary to Jill Scotts debut album Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, originally released July 18, 2000.
Moving from Los Angeles to New York City in the summer of 2000 is the second wisest decision Ive ever made. The first? Well, heeding the sound advice of my good friend, who persuaded me to stick around our local bar for one more drink that late October evening nearly ten years ago. About fifteen minutes after heeding his advice, I serendipitously met the love of my life, the incredible woman who would become my wife a few years later. But back to that close runner-up of a decision. In August of 2000, a restless soul of just 22 years and one year removed from my graduation from UCLA, I had grown indifferent toward my life in West L.A. Desperately craving a change of scenery and a lifestyle recalibration, so to speak, I ventured east to New York. And more precisely, the neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Five years before I fortuitously found and fell in love with my future wife, I fell head-over-heels for Fort Greene, and I fell hard. Though my family and I now live in an adjacent neighborhood just a stones throw away, Fort Greene remains the most vibrant and thrilling place Ive ever called home, and I vividly relish all of the wonderful friends Ive met and indelible experiences I had there.
As Ive written about in this column before, my recollections of time and place are always inextricably connected to the music I was absorbed in whenever and wherever I happened to be. My memories of my first few months in Brooklyn are no exception to the rule. In fact, I can immediately pinpoint three albums in particular that functioned as my most intimate musical companions during that transformative period of my early adulthood. Commons Like Water for Chocolate, Coldplays Parachutes, and Jill Scotts Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. In fact, the latter was the first album I ever bought in New York, the day after I landed in my new city. So among the three aforementioned albums, Scotts debut LP is the one I most closely associate with my introduction to the Big Apple and my newfound feelings of rejuvenation and redemption upon making a new home there.
Like many of us, I first learned of Jilly from Philly about a year before she dropped her debut, per her songwriting credits on The Roots poignant, Grammy Award-winning love song You Got Me from their 1999 Things Fall Apart LP. As the story goes, Scott originally recorded vocals for the tracks chorus and bridge, but The Roots record label (MCA) mandated that a more recognizable act be added to the official release version of the track. Hence, Erykah Badus involvement. Thankfully, Scott joined The Roots tour to perform live versions of the song, and the Scott-blessed version appeared on the bands 2005 Home Grown! compilation.
Nearly eighteen months after You Got Me was released as a single, Scott dropped her proper introduction in the form of the mesmerizing Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. One of the most balanced and engaging R&B albums youll ever hear, Scotts dazzling debut is both a cerebral and visceral affair that simultaneously strokes the intellect, stirs the emotions, stimulates the body, and caresses the soul. As she once confided to Vibe, Its music. Its writing. Its experiences. Its vulnerability. Its honesty. Its being a womanan African-American woman. Being a daughter and a sister, and a grandchild, and a godmother. Its life. Its deeper than what I know. Its bigger than what I can see. I guess its a dive into the human spirit. The title itself suggests the ongoing formation of an identity, and throughout the albums 19 tracks, the listener does gain quite a bit of insight into the albums creator. Though one also gets the sense that the keenly self-aware Scott is always seeking to define and refine who she is. A perpetual work-in progress, in other words.
One thing we immediately discover about Scott upon listening to the first few tracks is that her voice is a rarefied gift and her introspectively candid songwriting is superb. Throughout the course of the album, the versatile soprano and spoken-word savant who cites renowned poet Nikki Giovanni as the reason I started to write proves that while she most certainly sings with more vigor than most, she also speaks with just as much power. Indeed, words and sounds contain equal weight for Scott, and the songs affirm her multidimensional talents.
The inaugural release on the independent Hidden Beach record label, Who is Jill Scott? was produced by the A Touch of Jazz collective founded by Scotts fellow Philly native and kindred musical spirit Jeff Townes, more affectionately known as DJ Jazzy Jeff. Named after the instrumental track of the same name from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Princes 1987 debut LP Rock the House, A Touch of Jazz boasts an impressive repertoire of top-quality records produced for the likes of soul stalwarts Michael Jackson, Bilal, Kenny Lattimore, Musiq Soulchild, Floetry, and Dwele, among many others. Defined by its sublimely crafted ballads, laid-back grooves and sophisticated sonics, Who is Jill Scott? is arguably the crews most inspired achievement, however. In discussing the motivations that fueled the albums creation, Townes explains:
We did everything here, right down to having an involvement in the cover and the way the project looked. It was reminiscent of the old days when you had your hands in all the facets of making a record. It was very grass roots, and with little thought for the commercial aspect. We didnt make it with the radio listener in mind, our goal was just to make a really good album that people would love from beginning to end.
Mission accomplished. Though while Townes modesty is endearing, the album is far more than just really good. Its excellent. A 21st century masterpiece.
From the albums opening moments captured on the brief yet buoyant Jilltro, the ever-humble Scott sets her audiences expectations by distilling her creative motivations, from writing poetry to singing to listening to hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. Permeating through all of her stated passions is the central theme of the record, echoed throughout the intro: love. One gets the sense that Scotts ruminations on the subject are rooted in ample experience and plenty of trial-and-error, as she navigates the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly and everything in between as it pertains to this most universal and complex of topics.
To be sure, Who is Jill Scott? is a sensuous, effervescent collection of love songs, which doesnt necessarily distinguish it from the myriad other R&B albums out there. What differentiates it, however, is its complete absence of cliché and superficiality in favor of unequivocal sincerity and substance, a distinction unmistakably evident within Scotts nuanced, more conversational approach to delivering her musings. When Scott speaks and singswith her dynamic vocal range and unparalleled phrasing that seamlessly fluctuate from softly reassuring to magnetically powerfulyou have no choice but to believe and empathize with her.
Far more than a collection of singles, Who is Jill Scott? is an album that demands to be heard and appreciated as precisely that: an album. Noticeably devoid of any fare that can even remotely be considered filler, the LP is an enthralling listen from beginning to end. Standout songs include the wistful album-opening ode to nostalgic love Do You Remember, the heartfelt dedication to Scotts then-husband Lyzel Williams on He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat), and the redemptive, failed relationship anthem Slowly Surely. Another highlight is the daydream-like A Long Walk, which perfectly conjures those all-too-rare moments in life when the connection you feel for another is so refreshingly natural and immersive. The antithesis of the infamous walk of shame, this is no ephemeral, soon-to-be-forgotten stroll. Love Rainboth the official version and the hidden Head Nod Mix version featuring Mos Defproves that Scotts spoken-word narratives are just as soulful and accessible as they are cerebral and provocative.
While the bulk of the songs evoke the sweetly sentimental dimensions of love, Scott proves that shes just as capable of exploring loves more pragmatic side, albeit with a touch of irreverent humor and convincing chutzpah. On the cheeky interlude Exclusively, Scott enthusiastically details the latest lovemaking session with her man, only to subsequently encounter the new girl at the counter of her local market who challenges Scotts naïve assumption that her man is monogamously attached. Exclusively then segues perfectly into the derisive declaration Gettin in the Way, in which Scott marks and staunchly defends her territory from a pesky rival with a handful of memorable lines, such as the recurring refrain You better back down before you get smacked down you better chill.
From the moment I first heard Who is Jill Scott? in all of its seductive splendor, I was instantly converted into a devoted champion of its charismatic creator. So it has been gratifying, to say the least, to witness Scott develop and diversify her career in a multitude of ways beyond music to encompass acting and philanthropy, among other endeavors. Next weeks arrival of her eagerly-awaited fifth studio album entitled WOMAN punctuates an already eventful 2015 for Scott, following last months release of the Hidden Beach-curated Golden Moments hits compilation and the recent launch of her Summer/Fall tour. With WOMAN, as with the exceptional body of work that precedes it and will surely follow, Scott will continue to answer the grand question she posed with her debut fifteen years ago. I, for one, cant wait to discover even more about who Jilly from Philly has been, who she is, and who she will be.
My Favorite Song: An unbreakable tie between He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat) and Love Rain
A Long Walk
Gettin in the Way
The Roots & Jill Scott You Got Me (Live on MTV)