Slept on Soul/Jaguar Wright
Denials, Delusions and Decisions by Michael A. Gonzales
Hailed by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “an amazing singer,” in 2002, artist Jaguar (Jacquelyn) Wright was destined to be the next big thang, but something happened. It wasn’t for lack of talent, desire or a dope debut album, but still something happened. Today, damn near two decades later, the Philadelphia homegirl has became notorious for her vicious video exposés calling out the alleged scandalous behavior of former friends, fellow artists and other associates, but the singer/songwriter was once part of her city’s new wave of talented recording artists emerging from the area in the late-‘90s/early 2000s. “What we’ve created here is a kind of musical unity,” DJ Jazzy Jeff told Vibe reporter Tom Moon in 2000. “No one person can take credit. Everybody has an understanding of what people’s strengths are. People are sharing ideas, working together.”
Like most of the world outside of her native city, my introduction to Wright’s blues soaked voice was her collabo with The Roots on the inspired “What You Want,” a song from the 1999 soundtrack of The Best Man. “Nobody ever really gave me credit for the hook for The Best Man,” Wright said in 2002. “[But] I wrote that. I know I did — I get the royalty checks.” The then 22-year old had laid-down strong vocals that were sharp, saucy and straight from the heart. On that song, Jag’s voice was the delicious gravy on top of an already splendid meal. “The Philly native, a shameless hood rat from the north side, had a deep background in hip-hop but was essentially a jazz-minded soul singer,” late music critic Rashod Ollison wrote in the Virginian-Pilot. “Her voice snapped and stung like a leather whip.”
Jaguar paid her dues and then some. Starting out as a rapper with a crew called Philly Blunts, she wrote her own fiery rhymes and changed none of her steez after switching genres. The transition was smooth. Having sung in church when she was a child, the transition was smooth, Jag proved, in a city filled with fierce competitors, to be one of the best. For years she’d performed at the Philly talent showcase Black Lily and toured with The Roots, but it wasn’t until Jaguar wailed sanctified soul backgrounds on Jay-Z’s VH1 Unplugged special that aired on November 18, 2001 that music fans demanded more. “Her voice is incredible,” Jay-Z told an interviewer in 2001. The following year Wright released her debut Denials, Delusions and Decisions (Motive Records), an album she co-wrote and that many thought would make her a star.
With its stunning Barron Claiborne photo of the singer on the cover, the disc received positive reviews from then-Popmatters columnist Mark Anthony Neal, currently a professor at Duke University, Village Voice vet Carol Cooper and the aforementioned Ta-Nehisi Coates, who reviewed the album for the Washington Post. “Denials has some of the best soul music you will hear this year,” he wrote. “She is an amazing singer, sporting a vocal range that vaults her to the top of her vocalist class.” However, though he praised the album, Coates spent much of his review reprimanding the singer for the combative crankiness he thought was a manufactured persona used to sell records. In fact, a picture of Jag in the CD case staring into the camera and sticking-up her middle finger seemingly disturbed him.
“The flick is a vivid portrayal of Wright’s persona–the angry, post-feminist black woman,” Coates said. “No fewer than three cuts on Denials back this image up, most of them, like “Ain’t Nobody Playin’,” featuring Wright in violent confrontations with other women…the problem for Wright is that the image forces her into a box…Denials asks you to believe that the person and the persona are one and the same.”
However, as the public has since learned in the last few months, Jaguar’s attitude had nothing to do with a manufactured image designed to sell records. The sista was/is, like Big Daddy Kane AND Neneh Cherry, raw like sushi. In 2001, Wright told bio writer Tomika Anderson, “I do the real. We’ve got plenty enough people doing the mushy mushy and the sexy sexy. We need somebody to talk about the truth.”
Though I’ve only watched one of her recent videos, I felt that seeing Wright made me think about those long gone days of the Philadelphia soul revival that introduced the world to so many talented artists, who released excellent material, but were still slept on for various reasons.
Since the days of my childhood, I’ve always loved the sound of Philadelphia Soul. Be it the 1970s Sigma Sound hit factory grooves of Gamble & Huff produced Teddy Pendergrass and Patti LaBelle, the 1980s blue-eyed R&B of Hall & Oates or the 1990s hip-hop label Ruffhouse Records, co-owned by aural auteur Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo whose roster that included Cypress Hill and The Fugees, the city of Philly has contributed considerably to the World’s soundtrack for several generations. However, while the boom of rap overshadowed the town’s soul scene for much of the ‘90s, at the beginning of the new millennium the Worlds of hip-hop and soul began to merge, spearheaded considerably by rap/funk crew, The Roots, and their bandleader/drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
“They showed people the power of the collective,” veteran rapper Schoolly D observed in 2000. Guided since they were high school kids by late manager Rich Nichols, who helped educate the band culturally, The Roots embraced Black music in all its forms. As a rap band that toured the World and were known for their joyfully intense live performances, they mashed rap with R&B, jazz, blues and funk.
In the studio and on stage, the band collaborated with artists of various genres including guitarist Vernon Reid, saxophonist David Murray, rap futurist Q-Tip and new soul king D’Angelo. Additionally, the group was also partial to working with soulful women singers that included Cassandra Wilson, Amel Larrieux, Jill Scott, Erkyah Badu and Jaguar (Jacquelyn) Wright.
Some might’ve thought that Wright was too young to sound so adult, but she obviously had an old soul whose singing took the listener on a midnight ride to the Soul Train 1970s when Betty Wright, Millie Jackson and Ann Peebles were in regular rotation on the radio. “I make grown-folks music,” Wright told writer Ainè Ardron-Doley from the Philadelphia City Paper in 2002. “I don’t make music for kids. It’s grown language, talking ’bout grown shit for grown people.”
Raised in the church and kept away from soul music by her over protective parents, young Jacquelyn was able to bypass the restrictions. “We had to sneak to listen to secular music,” she told Ardron-Doley. “I wouldn’t say that I’d call [my upbringing] strict — I wasn’t so easy to deal with, I had a mind of my own, I always have.” In the beginning Jag took her singing skills for granted and was working to perfect her raptress flow.
“Growing up in that household really taught me a whole lot. My father really made me a great writer. The reason why I pursue music with such a conviction is because of him. It was something that I loved so much and it was something that he tried to keep me from so tough. I became like a soldier for it, in a weird way.” In the end, her father burned her lyric book, and Jaguar went to live with her aunt.
The mid-to-late 1990s saw the rise of the so-called “neo-soul” movement. The name was merely a marketing device, but, much too many of the artist’s rejection of the term, it stuck. While D’Angelo often gets complete credit creating the aesthetic that combined traditional soul instrumentation with the cyberfunk of samplers, turntablism and vintage gadgets, a few pioneers included Brit artists Soul II Soul, The Brand New Heavies and Massive Attack, while in America producers Foster & McElroy, Tony! Toni! Toné!, whose “leader” Raphael Saadiq should be knighted and Joi broke new ground. After D’Angelo’s debut Brown Sugar was released in 1995, others, including Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Chico DeBarge soon followed.
It was during that same era when Philly soul was beginning to bubble anew. “It was an extremely vibrant music scene in the time with a lot of artists and producers who came out of it and became household names,” says veteran culture journalist Tonya Pendleton, currently a reporter for The Grio. “There were a few who became big stars, but Kindred the Family Soul, Vivian Green, Jazzyfatnastees, Aaries and Carol Riddick were some of the other artists that came out of that fertile scene. It was an intense period of creativity, musicianship and soul.”
Founded in 1999 at New York club Wetlands by Jazzyfatnastees members Mercedes Martinez and Tracy Moore, the illustrious Black Lily nights later moved to every Tuesday in Philly at The Five Spot. The gigs became a launching ground for the previously mentioned singers as well as Lady Alma, Res, India.Arie, Floetry and Jaguar Wright, who in the beginning opened the showcase. “At that point in time I had no material. I would literally get up on stage for forty-five minutes and freestyle off the top of my head,” Jag told Vonnie Woods of HoneySoul.com in 2005. It was on The Five Spot stage where they all worked out the kinks in their performances while perfecting their skills.
“I saw Jag a bunch of times,” says Philadelphia native and Original vs Cover podcaster DJ Crystal “Clear” Durant. “She was fierce and always on point. Her freestyles were bananas, you could throw her anything and she would just smash it. She’s a Philly “Hood Chick” who has no time for games, and will slice your pie with the quickness. Always a mic dropper. In her, I saw shades of Dinah Washington, Millie Jackson, Chaka Khan, Etta James, and Billie Holiday.”
In April, 2002, Carol Cooper wrote, “Live, Jaguar does her best to represent as a 21st-century Millie Jackson, with a little bit of Moms Mabley rawness on top. Only a black grassroots scene like Black Lily would even have recognized that the world needed a post-hip-hop Millie Jackson. So naturally The Roots took Wright on as a protégé, and inadvertently produced her first hit as the signature cut from the feature film The Best Man.”
The Roots signed the Jazzyfatnastees and Jaguar Wright to their MCA distributed label Motive Records and had financial interests in the Black Lily scene. When not on the road with D’Angelo or in the studio contributing to one of the many The Soulquarian projects (Badu, Common, J. Dilla, etc), they were at The Five Spot serving as the house band. DJ Crystal “Clear” Durant, who recalled, “Black Lily was the first time I’d an all Black women showcase. To see so many fab women, it was amazing. And they were all being backed by The Roots?!? That was BANANAS!”
Jag’s label Motive Records was set to corner the market on alternative hip-hop and R&B. The roster also included Dice Raw, Flo Brown, 3-7000-9; they also were going to sign Beanie Sigel before he went to Roc-A-Fella. In 1999, The Roots’ rapper Black Thought explained the Motive Records concept to Billboard journalist Elena Oumano. “We’re running the gamut of sound. It’s not a hip-hop, alternative, R&B or reggae label. It’s a record label dealing with premier, quality music across the board and production for whatever you need.”
The Jazzyfatnastees released their album The Once and Future in ’99, with Dice Raw’s hard rock Reclaiming the Dead dropping in 2000. However, Jaguar’s superior Denials, Delusions and Decisions was held until 2002. Motive had tried to jump off Denials, Delusions and Decisions the year before with the single “Ain’t Nobody Playin’,” a track produced by Scott Storch that featured Roots rapper Black Thought, but the song fizzled.
Denials, Delusions and Decisions opened strong with the bad man/other woman track “The What If’s.” In addition to being my favorite Jaguar song, critic Mark Anthony Neal dug it too. “The themes of infidelity and the ‘other woman’ frame the brilliant ‘The What If’s,’ which was one of the songs that Wright performed during her first appearance at Black Lily in 1999,” Neal wrote in a review he later reprinted in his 2003 book Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. “‘The What If’s’ is a smoothed out diatribe that places the blame for her condition firmly on her wandering man she laments.”
Meanwhile, Questlove twisted the studio knobs on the trippy George Clinton/Prince inspired second single “I Can’t Wait.” The track was co-produced with keyboardist James Poyser and featured the bugged vocal stylings of Bilal. While I dug the track for all its Paisley aspirations, Jag’s vocals were better suited for more gritty material as heard on “Same Shit Different Day Pt. 1,” another Thompson/Poyser production.
“There was a lot of posturing in her music, all gathered from hip-hop,” Rashod Ollison wrote. “An attractive vulnerability also fueled her approach and undergirded every song on her stellar debut, Denials, Delusions and Decisions. Like many singing hood chicks, Jaguar wailed and moaned about suffering love’s foolishness, while holding on to a thread of dignity.”
While I could appreciate Wright giving her flowers to Philly soul elder Patti LaBelle on her classy cover of the “Love, Need And Want You,” which was written by Bunny Sigler and Kenny Gamble, I was more drawn to funky soul standouts “2 Too Many” and “Lineage,” an autobiographical song featuring veteran guitarist Randy Bowland, bassist Pino Palladino and some of Thompson’s more relaxed production. Yet, while Jaguar Wright delivered a stellar project, nothing much happened with Denials, Delusions and Decisions and it was the last album Motive Records released.
Wright’s follow-up album …And Your Point Is? was supposed to be released in 2004, but instead it was shelved. The always impressive YouTube channel Reelblack, which also operates out of Philadelphia, posted the disc and a brief statement in 2019. “After leaving the label, some versions of the songs ended up on her 2005 Artemis Records CD, Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul. This is the album as intended, from a rare advanced copy.”
Jaguar Wright’s recent videos have had people not just judging her behavior, but also going back to discover or re-evaluate the splendid songs, performances and albums that made her special in the first place (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8zIX9nyalmIBc9Djl79l3w). Eighteen years after its release, Denials, Delusions and Decisions has held up and remains a shining example of real soul.
Listen to Denials, Delusions and Decisions
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.