It's been four years since Jill Scott released her first album, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1" -- a reasonable question for those outside Philadelphia who'd never heard of Jilly from Philly. She was, they discovered, a singer-songwriter who didn't need the marketing magic of MTV or a major label to win an audience. Her songs were all she needed. And then, after a seemingly endless run of singles spinning out from her Grammy-nominated debut CD, she all but disappeared.
Now Scott is back with a resolute optimism, happily married and apparently eager to spread the joy in "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2," an album that traffics in the prosaic power of everyday life: the sweet humor of a dysfunctional "Family Reunion"; reveling in being able to get your "hair tight and . . . nails right"; realizing that in affairs of the heart, what goes around comes around, and yes, women can do the backstabbing, too.
"Golden," the disc's first single, is an irresistibly happy affair, opening with expansive synthesizer that evokes a '70s vibe, conjuring images of the Blackbyrds waxing rhapsodic about Rock Creek Park. Instrumentally it's rather simple, with bass and drums keeping steady pace with Scott's swooping vocals. Still, while the mood occasionally is evocative of times gone by, it avoids the derivative rut that so many neo-soul singers find themselves stuck in. This is a song that stays rooted in the present, an ecumenical gospel for those who like their spirituality served up with a rump-shaking groove:
I'll be high-steppin' y'all
Letting the joy unfold . . .
I'm strumming my own freedom, playing the God in me . . .
Hope He's proud of me
I'm living my life like it's Golden.
"Golden" is quintessential Scott: defiantly affirming the positive. It is this sense of joie de vivre -- coupled with her powerful voice -- that created so many fans with her first album and carried her through her second, live album, "Experience: Jill Scott +826" and earned her a fervent following of fans in sold-out concerts around the country.
Indeed, Scott is the poster girl for mental health, a champion for brushing yourself off, dumping the losers and snuggling up in the arms of a strong, sexy and, of course, emotionally available man.
She's always married words to music (she began her performance career on Philly's spoken-word circuit, where she caught the attention of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of the Roots and ended up performing with them). In "Cross My Mind," she indulges her poet's side, opening with spoken lyrics as she lets a former lover know that yes, she's thought of him once . . . or twice. Sung choruses burst between the spoken stanzas, until her speech morphs into scats, the wistful reverie leading her off into musical tangents, much the way the mind whirls around and around on itself, tripping on the past. It's as if she can't help herself; the music is burbling inside her, threatening to explode. Then she stops herself, returning to the surety of spoken word: "But the reality is / You were never good for me and / I was never good for you / I just remember what we used to do."
Scott is a proudly full-bodied woman, confident and strong with a voice to match. It's a voice that's in fine form throughout "Beautifully Human," at once sweetly ethereal and childlike in the dreamily yearning "The Fact Is (I Need You)" and then brassily earthy in the bluesy "Bedda at Home," where she lets a brother on the street know that while he's "intoxicating and so divine" she's looking but not touching because she's got a man who is, well, bedda.
In the two years that she disappeared from public view, Scott got married, bought a house, painted it, started an educational foundation called Blues Babes, and spent a lot of time listening to Maze's Frankie Beverly and the late Minnie Ripperton. Their influences can be felt in the sweetness of her sounds, in her conscience-driven lyrics.
Notwithstanding these influences, Scott is nobody's copycat. She's chosen to work with the same producers from her first CD -- James Poyser, Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Mama's Boys -- while adding wunderkind Raphael Saadiq to the mix. Smart choice. Who knows -- if she'd worked with the producing flavas of the minute, no doubt she'd end up, as her contemporary Angie Stone did, trying to increase her cool quotient by dueting with the likes of Snoop Dogg.
Instead, she sticks with what works for her: Carefully constructed songs that don't hew to the standard. When she experiments, she's more likely to play with musical genres from days gone by, like the big-band seasoning in "Talk to Me."
Still, there are some missteps along the way, namely "Rasool," a pedantic, heavy-handed warning against youth-on-youth violence, and she does go a bit overboard with the self-affirmations of her goddess within. By the end of the album, it feels as though she ran out of ideas. "Beautifully Human" doesn't have quite the dynamism of "Who Is Jill Scott?" and can't quite capture that sense of discovery that comes from checking out a spanking-new talent, but it's worth repeated listens just the same.