IT'S BEEN four years since "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1" answered its own question by selling 2.3 million copies, elevating the unknown North Philadelphia poet from "who?" to "whoosh!" via a stunning debut and sold-out tours here and abroad. Folks quickly took to Scott's bracing brew of soul, jazz and hip-hop, insightful storytelling and dramatic stage presence, as well as a glorious voice that told everyday stories about romantic aspiration, failure and renewal with extraordinary power and conviction.
Then two years ago, she pretty much disappeared, and folks started thinking any new album might have to be titled "Where Is Jill Scott?"
"Actually, I have heard that a couple of times," Scott says with a laugh from Philadelphia as she prepares to unveil "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2." The new album is set for release on Aug. 31, and Scott will preview it with a short "buzz tour," including Friday and Saturday shows at the 9:30 club. She'll be working with a quartet of musicians; a full band tour in larger venues will follow in the fall.
So, where was Jill Scott all this time?
In Philadelphia, getting married to longtime beau and multi-song-inspiration Lyzel Williams, fixing up a house, recharging batteries suddenly spent.
"The reason that I've had to wait is I needed to live," Scott says. "I needed to go grocery shopping, and sit on my grandmother's porch, to sleep in my mother's nightgown and get on my grandmother's bed -- things that matter to me.
"I needed to cry a little bit, to reassess my life because it had changed so much."
Indeed, Scott's transformation from little-known performance poet to major figure in the nu-soul movement was both dramatic and quick: Her very first writing credit, the hook on the Roots' 1999 breakthrough hit, "You Got Me," earned Scott a Grammy and a record contract. Within a year, the spotlight was shining on Scott, making it difficult for her to do what she'd always done best -- people watch.
"To me, part of being a poet means being able to sit as an invisible being and watch the world, pay attention," Scott says. "I love to see the changing faces of somebody on a train or bus, thinking about things, and here I am, imagining what they're thinking about, what they're going through. Being a fly on the wall and listening to someone's conversation and hearing what they're hearing, that's a whole other story, a whole other universe that I can dig my teeth into, or dig my pen into. . . .
"I used to get a lot of my inspiration from riding the bus, and I tried that and it was not a good experience," Scott says of her post-album profile. "It wasn't like I could sit and be an observer. I was the person everyone else was observing, and it was strange to me. I missed those things and it hurt me, too, so I took some time and now I have to shift a little bit -- shift quite a bit -- in order to still find my own groove. I've had to find new and interesting ways to do it."
Nothing radical, mind you. For "Beautifully Human," Scott has drafted the production talents of James Poyser, Raphael Saadiq, Andre Harris & Vidal Davis and others for a 15-song set that builds off the joyful opening declaration that Scott's "living my life like it's golden." There are Lyzel-inspired slow jams like ""Whatever, Whenever," "Bedder at Home" and "Nothing," as well as social missives like "Rasool," "Petition" and "Family Reunion."
As before, Scott mostly sings, but she sometimes speaks her lyrics, befitting her mid-'90s origins as a performance poet.
"I actually sang before I began to write," says Scott, whose passion for poetry began in the eighth grade when she was turned on to the works of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. While still in high school, Scott began writing and participating in Philadelphia's active poetry scene, performing in clubs with such established poets as Ursula Rucker and Rich Medina. But while Scott's words were publicly spoken, her voice remained contained, even as she started on a teacher training track at Temple University.
"I like to take things in steps, and singing, to me, has always been naked," Scott explains. "It's not so much about singing something that sounds pretty as singing something that feels honest, and I was very frightened by the thought of that. I thought if I sang how I felt and everybody could hear how I felt that somehow or other that would harm me. So I had some living and some maturing before I could even dream about getting on stage, no matter what size, in front of an audience, no matter what size, and sing my heart, my spirit. That was scary."
As it turned out, the road to security went through the theater. In 1996, Scott became disillusioned with teaching and abandoned that track in her junior year for an apprenticeship at the Walnut Street Theatre.
"I got into theater based off the poetry," Scott says, "because as I performed, there was some acting involved but it didn't feel like it to me. It just felt like the truth was in my body, coming out of my mouth, but it often didn't make sense. I did a fellowship so I could get free acting lessons and, hopefully, a job."
Scott eventually graduated from hanging spotlights to being in one when she auditioned for the Canadian road show of the musical "Rent," earning a six-month contract and an audition for the long-running Broadway cast. But by then Scott was already plugged into the Roots-led network of Philadelphia poets, artists and musicians, ready to add a score to poems that had suddenly doubled their potential as lyrics.
Scott might have broken a little earlier had she been able to sing the hook on the Roots' "You Got Me," but their label opted for a slightly better-known singer, Erykah Badu. The author would reclaim it on tour with the Roots, and on their live album, "The Roots Come Alive."
Truth is, Scott wasn't fully committed to being a singer: When she'd first hooked up with producer-studio-owner Jazzy Jeff Townes, it was to cut a demo for "A Long Walk," a song she'd written about her first date with Lyzel Williams. Scott hoped another of Townes's acts might record it, but his response was immediate: "Okay, you're more than just a writer."
"I didn't really think about it," Scott recalls. "When I came down to A Touch of Jazz [Townes's studio], I just wanted a job. They weren't really jumping up and down to give me one as a writer or a vocalist, so I ended up staining and polyurethaning the lobby because I needed some money. I was broke and my girlfriend's wedding was coming up and I needed a dress! It was very simple."
Scott eventually signed on as the first artist with Hidden Beach, a label begun by former Motown exec Steve McKeever, but started the buzz by co-writing and singing "The Rain" on the "Willennium" album by Jazzy Jeff's old pal, Fresh Prince Will Smith, and also contributing lyrics and vocals to albums by Common and fellow Philadelphian Musiq.
"Who Is Jill Scott?" came out in summer 2000, followed a year later by the two-CD "Experience: Jill Scott 826+," one disc a live album recorded at DAR Constitution Hall, the other featuring some new songs, remixes and poetry. The live recordings showed just how much more confident Scott had become as a singer since her debut.
"Sometimes I see them as two different entities, poetry and what I do as a vocalist," Scott offers. "I'm just hoping that it will expand the horizons and the thoughts of people in general as to what poetry is, about how important storytelling is. Not to make myself sound any more important than the next man, I just enjoy what I do and I enjoy sharing it and I hope it has impact, but if it doesn't, then I'm living my life, I'm digging what I do."
The written element will come to the fore next spring when St. Martin's Press publishes "The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours: The Poetry of Jill Scott."
And though she didn't become a teacher, Scott's appreciation of the college experience is reflected in the recently launched Blues Babe Foundation, named for her grandmother. Based in Philadelphia and seeded by a $100,000 gift from Scott, the foundation will assist 16-to-21-year-old students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds with the financial and mentoring support necessary to ensure undergraduate success. Last spring, the foundation made a $60,000 donation to the graduating class of the Creative Arts High School in Camden, N.J., and for the next three years, students who maintains a 3.2 GPA will receive yearly stipends to be put toward their college education.
Scott's two albums have featured what might be called "Lyzel suites," including such favorites as "A Long Walk" and "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)." Scott and Williams have been in a long-term relationship that culminated in marriage. In the past, critics have praised Scott's songs for their explorations of the before-and-after possibilities of relationships, celebrations of unions and declarations of independence, and she intends to continue exploring what Al Green once described as "good times and bad, happy and sad."
"With every light, there has to be some darkness," Scott says. "Married life for me is not 100 percent bliss, but it is worth it in my opinion -- the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows, and the lows make the highs just that much higher. I appreciate all of that stuff. I did it, I get it, I want it. Not that I want to be sad, but I do understand how therapeutic having a good cry is sometimes.
"And as a woman I'm learning so much about what that [title] actually means. Once I hit 30 it was, wow, so this is what we're talking about. I realized, for myself anyway, that the feminist movement got all jacked up and it's not as it should be, particularly with women running around saying, 'I don't need a man, I can raise a child on my own' and things of that nature, which in my opinion are not true. It's just not. A girl child or a boy, they need that testosterone as well as the estrogen in order to truly grow, just like flowers need sun and rain. It's very simple and as I'm growing up, I'm learning that. You think, wow, who knew?"
Scott, who addresses the topic in the new song, "Fact Is (I Need You)," apparently also needs the cathartic interactions that define her concert performances.
"I have missed it, definitely, because it's a craving, a hunger. For a while I didn't write any songs because they just didn't come and I didn't force the issue. It's the same with performing. For a while, I was okay with just being Jill, [my mom's] daughter. Now there is a certain level of hunger, a craving, and I'm excited to get my fix."
JILL SCOTT -- Appearing Friday and Saturday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Jill Scott, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)