Jill Scott is not what you'd call high-maintenance. Bright-eyed over breakfast at the Mondrian Hotel, this rising star of the nouveau-soul/R&B world notes--enunciating each syllable for emphasis--that she slept "like a pro-fes-sion-al. Woke up feeling like I should have gotten a pay-check." Open and personable, she wears the same casual look that she favors at her concert appearances: Nike shoes and T-shirt, ankle-length bluejean skirt. Makeup is bare to nonexistent. Hair is wildly Afroed.
Most tellingly, Scott carries her robust figure (an insecurity that she has learned to love) with regal poise, sitting up straight in her seat and projecting her silky voice with confidence. There is a kind of natural-woman, energetic glow to her. Sometimes she even poses barefoot for photo shoots.
Her much-discussed debut album, released this year, is called "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1," and it's tempting to try to answer the question posed in the title. Anointing the disc as one of the top 50 of the year, Rolling Stone defined her like this: "As much poet as she is crooner, the Philadelphia newcomer evokes soul-music icons while keeping her grooves current and her heart open."
Jill Scott is also someone who delights in documenting the simple pleasures of everyday life. In fact, what stands out most about her highly literary lyrical style (invoking the Bible and the Koran, for starters) is the attention to detail. On "The Way," for example, she informs us all about breakfast that morning: "Toast. Two scrambled eggs. Griiiiiiits."
Scott weaves such precise observations into compelling story-fabrics, accented by a rich mixture of jazz, funk, soulful rap, and rhythm and blues. A new kid in town when her album dropped in July, Scott, 28, made friends quickly. The CD reached No. 10 on the Billboard R&B charts and quietly went gold in October, selling more than 500,000 copies in the United States.
Enjoying powerful word-of-mouth support, the 18-track album (narrowed down from 52) also charmed critics, many of whom suggested that Scott offered a fuller, more insightful sound than others performing in her milieu--namely Erykah Badu, Macy Gray and Angie Stone. Indeed, Scott's vocal range is even more impressive in live performance (one is set for Thursday night at Constitution Hall), where she is usually flanked by a six-piece band and two backup vocalists.
Filled with sensuality and earthiness, the lyrics of "Who Is Jill Scott?" convey depth rarely seen in romantic representations of black women and men. While various themes surface in the album, in its entirety it seems a tribute, not to the perfection of African American men but to their perfect potential. This, in a pop music culture rife with materialistic odes to getting paid and "no scrubs," TLC's Grammy-winning rejection of brothas without cash.
There is, in both Scott's music and her persona, a belief in the healing power of love. "Your background / It ain't squeaky clean," she rap-sings in "A Long Walk." ". . . Sometimes we all gotta swim upstream / You ain't no saint / We all are sinners / But you put your good foot down to make your soul the winner / I respect that."
Over breakfast Scott chats about her fiance, Lyzel Williams, whom she honors throughout the album, and especially in "He Loves Me: Lyzel in E Flat." A graphic artist and deejay who remains in Philadelphia while Scott tours, Williams overwhelmed her, says the singer, when they met at a local poetry reading in 1991. She paced across the stage, reciting-singing her work. He sat on the floor listening, his "spirit," recalls Scott, following her every move.
"One day I asked him to go for a walk," she adds. "And then pretty soon it was just us. We'd sneak in the kitchen and hug. We were such good friends. It was just a natural evolution to where we are now."
Scott used the budding relationship as inspiration, penning "A Long Walk" during a bus ride from Philadelphia to New York: "Let's take a long walk around the park after dark / Find a spot for us to spark / Conversation, verbal elation, stimulation / Share our situations, temptations, education / Relaxations, elevations / Maybe we can talk about Revelations 3:17."
Scott isn't shy about sharing the good news with her fans. Ad-libbing during a performance of "Lyzel in E Flat," Scott wipes away tears as she sing-speaks: "I want you to understand: For a long time I had no love in my life. Only one-night stands that lasted for years. . . . And then finally God brought a love like him, my brother. Seeeee!! [She displays a large diamond engagement ring.] Love is real! Love is reeeaaalll!"
Thank You, Miss Danish
An only child from North Philadelphia, Jill Scott was raised by her mother, whom she describes as "a Renaissance woman: dental technician, acupuncturist, tiler, drywaller and antique refurbisher," and her grandmother. Her biological father was "around," says Scott, and they've become good friends in recent years, but her stepfather, who lived in the home until Jill was 5, left childhood scars.
Physically abusive of Jill and her mother, even today he prompts the artist to lapse into truncated sentences. "We left," she says. Her mother "never looked back. Not once. Not ever. And I can never thank her enough for that because--it was really bad. I think that's when I really started to learn the lessons of life:
"There's gonna be pain. There's gonna be hurt. There's gonna be sadness. There's gonna be grief. But life is still a gift."
Scott isn't sure when her love of words and music took hold. It could have been any one of several moments: listening to her grandmother sing hymns from the bathtub, or hearing her mother's vivid tales of her own childhood, like the time a security guard threw rocks at her for trying to steal a glimpse of the lush grounds inside an all-white boys' school in Philadelphia. Most likely it was a combination of such moments, plus those spent with a very special eighth-grade teacher: Miss Fran Danish.
"She was awesome," says Scott. "I was getting into fights in North Philly, so my mom had a doctor she worked for, and he wrote some letters and got me into this school, Albert M. Greenfield. It was filled with congressmen's kids and the mayor's children.
"Miss Danish wore fur coats to school. She was a lady. We'd have spelling bees and, if I did really well, she'd paint my nails during recess and just talk to me."
One day Miss Danish gave a poetry assignment, handing out a list of names to choose from. "I just rolled my finger around on the paper," recalls Scott, "and it landed on Nikki Giovanni. I thought maybe she was an Italian lady. So I went to the library and looked her up, and it was this black woman! [Giovanni] was my grandmother and my mother. She was me. It was a real revelation, that writing could be this way."
Soon, she recalls, "I had songs for everything. I would sing about catching the bus. My locker combination. I sang to myself all the time, making a melody out of the three syllables of a word. That's how I learned to spell--because I wanted to have lunch with Miss Danish."
Already Scott had the makings of what would become her trademark: the ability to create lyrics from the smallest things. And yet it would be some time before the young artist would "piece it all together," as she puts it. Deeply influenced by the music of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and the soundtrack to "The Wiz," Scott continued to write as a young woman, secretly yearning to sing and act, as she pursued her education at Temple University. "My intention was to teach," says Scott, "and to use my music. I thought it was a really good way of learning. I thought I could make a difference."
By her third year as a teacher-in-training, however, Scott was burned out. "The buildings were gray. Gray walls. Gray lockers. Gray floors. That's no way to teach a child. Children need stimulation. So because I would say things like that, teachers would pat me on the back and call me 'young and idealistic.' I was just tired. I felt disrespected. Every day was a battle. And I just thought, 'I know I have more to offer than this.' "
Scott dropped out of college, worked a variety of odd jobs and continued to pursue her love of poetry through spoken-word performances. She filled black-and-white composition notebooks with writing.
"I'll never forget hearing her," recalls Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer of the Roots. "It was at a poetry slam and it was the open-mike portion. Normally it was the protocol for the announcer to announce the next artist. But Jill was at the back of the room and she just got into it. Out of the blue, she started walking to the stage without a mike. It was part singing and part poetry, and she had totally rearranged Jodeci's 'Freaking You.' She took it from a cheesy R&B song and turned it into spoken word. It was the most intense 10 minutes I ever heard."
Not long afterward, Thompson called (at a "very inconvenient hour of the night," as he recalls) and asked Scott to write the hook for a Roots song, "You Got Me." "Because of her," he says, "that song totally changed our lives and brought us from obscurity." People still think of "Things Fall Apart," the CD that includes "You Got Me," as their first album, rather than the four before it, he adds.
The song won the 1999 Grammy for Best Rap Performance. To Scott's dismay, however, Erykah Badu had been asked to sing her words on the CD. (Scott and Thompson say the Roots' label, MCA, insisted on hiring a bigger name for the track.)
Scott eventually put things in perspective. "I was upset," she told Newsweek, "but then I was like, 'Sister, girl, wait a minute. The first song you write wins a Grammy--stop tripping!' " Later that year, Scott happily accepted an invitation from Thompson to tour with the group, singing her by-then-famous hook for their concert album.
Scott's varied career has steadily gained momentum. In 1998, after half a dozen auditions, she landed the role of the "Seasons of Love" soloist in the Canadian production of the hit musical "Rent." At the time of the tour, Scott had begun working with producer Jeff Townes (better known as Fresh Prince's partner, D.J. Jazzy Jeff) laying down tracks for her album. Since then, she has collaborated with heavyweights such as Will Smith and Eric Benet. With the release of "Who Is Jill Scott?" her life became so packed with concert and television dates that in September she was stricken with "sudden deafness syndrome": a temporary affliction brought on by stress and the air pressure changes of long-distance flights. Having lost 85 percent of the hearing in her right ear, Scott complied when doctors ordered rest. (She has fully recovered.)
So here is Jill Scott, now clearly Somebody but still something of an underground artist with an alternative sensibility. While the video for her song "Gettin' in the Way" plays regularly on MTV, Scott continues to build grass-roots support by showing up virtually unannounced at lesser-known venues, such as an outdoor jazz festival in Compton, Calif.
In fact, mainstream stardom is not something she set out for. "I didn't think that far ahead," she explains. "I just spoke from my heart and hoped that people would appreciate the music. I know that everything changes [with celebrity]. But I hoped that I would be able to remain myself. That I would be able to go to the market and pick out my fish and squeeze my lemons. I don't want to lose that.
"Fame? . . . I gotta tell you, it's bittersweet. There's nothing like going to buy your tampons and all of a sudden you've got a crowd."
Because her songs are so personal, "folks are looking to me as a guru, to a certain degree, on love," she says. It's a role she'd rather not play. "All I'm saying is, the hurt that you feel, feel it. Lay down on the floor. Cry. Scream. Have it out. Don't deny it. Hurt for real. And then heal."
"Jill Scott is one of those rare artists who can put emotion on tape," says Steve McKeever, founder of the Santa Monica-based Hidden Beach Records. A graduate of Harvard Law School, McKeever was executive vice president of talent at Motown before launching the label with financing from a small group of private investors--one of them Michael Jordan. McKeever says Hidden Beach's philosophy is that artists should be free to do their own thing, whether or not it fits into narrow radio formats. It seems a perfect fit for the whole-wheat flavor of Jill Scott.
"I think what the music industry needs," ventures Scott, "is options. It's not all gangsters and pimps and bitches and 'hos out here. There are some really fine women with heart and mind and soul and body, who want a man with the same qualities. Not all of us are 5-foot-9 and perfectly slim, with big boobs that sit up in the air. In fact, none of us are like that."
There is more than dewy-eyed romance on "Who Is Jill Scott?" A song called "Watching Me" indicts an unspecified conspiratorial eye that monitors and oppresses black people. Asked about this, Scott says: "I don't think the United States is prepared for everything that they've done to come back. This country is built on other people's blood, sweat and tears. So much of our history has been erased. And I don't think that they're prepared for . . . revolution. And revolution begins with love. So we gotta really start loving each other as black people.
"Some people say, 'Oh Jill, you're a separatist.' This is the way I look at it: We are a human family. But I got a tribe."
Affirming ancestral allegiance as the vital tie that binds black people, she wrote "Do You Remember" for all the brothas who would not respond to her hellos in the streets of Vancouver during her tour with "Rent." She asks: "Don't you remember me? You and me you and me you and me / We built sand castles in the Serengeti / Don't you remember me? / You splashed my face with Nile water / Daughter of the Diaspora, you named me / Claim me."
The Inner Voice
Asked what the future might hold for her, Scott hesitates, saying she doesn't want to jinx anything. "I don't like to plan too much," she explains. "Everything has led me to where I've been. . . . I just listen to that little voice that says, 'Don't go that way, go this way.' "
Her fans are listening, too. At the outdoor jazz fest in Compton, Charmaine Francois, a 35-year-old housing manager, says she heard about the concert circuitously. "A friend called all the way from Minnesota to say Jill Scott was going to be performing somewhere in L.A. I had my entire staff on the Internet looking for where she was gonna be," recalls Francois.
When asked what makes Scott worth that kind of effort, Francois describes her as "deeper, jazzier and more real-life" than most contemporary artists. "She's like an old girlfriend I can just relate to."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Who Is Jill Scott?" call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)