Review Summary: Need sexual healing? Step right up.
Jill Scott's life right now invites all manner of unfair comparisons. Nobody who's been keeping even the slightest eye open for her will be unaware that she's been going through a divorce from a relationship that predates her career in the music industry by several years, and that the experience must be stirring up all manner of emotions, no matter what spin Scott is putting on it. Being that she's a soul singer, and is coming out of a long-standing realtionship, you wonder whether she'll pour all those emotions into her next album, the way that Marvin Gaye did on Here, My Dear
, or the way Lauryn Hill did on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
But then, take a trip over to Jill Scott's website. Proudly displayed on the front page, in blog format, is a list of magazine covers that feature her taking defiant pot shots at her estranged husband, Lyzel Williams. She's appearing in a film called Why Did I get Married?
. In Upscale, she comments that 'no man wants to feel like his name is Mr. Scott'. On "Essence", the tagline is 'I'm not broken in any way'. It all rings slightly hollow when you consider that the music player on that page began playing "He Loves Me (Lyzel in Eb minor)" when I loaded it.
The Real Thing
is subtitled Words & Sounds Vol. 3
, making it the third album in the trilogy that began with the heavily marketed Who is Jill Scott?: Words & Sounds Vol. 1
, yet it feels little like its predecessors. Where the first two were albums filled with love songs with titles like "The Fact Is (I Need You)", "It's Love", "Love Rain", and yes, "He Loves Me", this is a load of tracks about anything other
than loving her husband. Mainly, that involves songs about having sex with other people. So yes, she is dealing with the break-up through her music....just not in the way you'd expect.
The initial impact is one of confusing mixed-genre signals. She basically admits as much in the throwaway intro track, "Let It Be", where she names a range of musics (hip-hop, rock'n'roll, reggaeton, country, and so on) and asks the listener to 'let it be'. It's probably just a studio jam they liked but that they couldn't quite figure out how to use, but it could easily be interpreted as a dig at any people who are going to criticize her lyrical change in direction. Yet, even if it's not, there's no mistaking what "Hate On Me" is about. Inspired by an internet forum Scott saw, it's as bolshy and swaggering as she's ever been. This is all well and good, but with this track grabbing your attention and the rest being sex jams, it begins to feel like an album with the sound of soul and the soul of hip-hop. Okay, others have managed that blend well - D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill among them - but this isn't on that level, and it actually sounds forced at times. It simply feels like a soul album without the soul. And if that's the case, then what's the point?
But, when it settles in, this reveals itself as a very good album, almost in spite of itself. While the morals of the album, as well as Scott's intentions with some of the lyrics here, may be questionable, the music is simply flawless. As neo-soul goes, she has obviously got the cream of the crop working on this, from the production, to the instrumentation, to the arrangements. And Scott's voice is just incredible, as always. She has to be considered one of the best singers in the world by this point - the maturity and sensitivity with which she handles even the most facetious of lyrics is something to be celebrated. Just observe "Epiphany", which is flat-out the best soul song of the year. In lesser hands, this would be way too graphic and slightly creepy, but Scott makes it sensual and genuinely sexy. "Come See Me", "All I", and "Whenever You're Around" are similarly brilliant.
But the lyrics remain a sticking point. That's not because they're bad, but simply because too often they lack the depth that both this music and Scott's voice deserves, and it's clear that this is the only reason that this isn't a classic. One moment in "Insomnia" is especially disappointing, when Scott teases us with the lyric 'You have managed to turn me from a woman of substance, into....', then lets the build-up down up with something or other about calling too damn much. Weak stuff. Shame, because it's a great song and an album highlight otherwise, dealing head-on with a (her?) break-up like little else here. Even a song like "My Love", which hints at emotional turmoil, resorts to simplicities and bragging. This may well probably seem deep to a hip-pop fan who hears 90% of their music in a club (and by the look of things that's who it's being marketed to), but anybody who's familiar with either the history of soul or even any other major neo-soul artists is likely to feel sold short. Too much time is spent here discussing the ins and outs of sex.
Also, no album, soul or otherwise, should ever contain a song called "Celibacy Blues". Well, maybe a Bloodhound Gang album or some ***.
It's confusing that, at a time when it applies to her personal life least, she's released her most couple-friendly album. This is basically made to have sex to, and while that's certainly a good thing, it does mean that its appeal is a little selective and that it occasionally feels like a opportunity wasted. But hey, it's great music all the same. What's right here is awesome, and I for one have got a lot of joy out of listening to it. The problem is that this could have been a happy, fulfilling, committed relationship, and instead it's a one-night stand with someone you felt a lot of chemistry with, but who never calls back.