15 Years Later: ‘Who Is Jill Scott?’ Is a Reminder That Love Is a Beautiful Mess
Every so often, an artist emerges out of nowhere and is able to captivate us with their overwhelming talent and skill. Formulaic songs and cookie-cutter ethos are the name of the game and run a dime a dozen when looking at the music industry, but the cream of the crop usually have a certain nuance about their artistry that sets them apart from the pack. They're in a rare class of their own. One of those proverbial pupils is Jill Scott.
A world-class vocalist and performer, she has managed to elude all restraints and spread her wings as a creative. From music to film to Broadway and everywhere in between, the voluptuous virtuoso is usually on the money and a safe bet to steal any show. In 2015, Scott stands as one of the most applauded and acclaimed singers of the new millennium, particularly contemporary R&B. However, a little over 15 years ago, that was far from the case.
Born in Philadelphia, Penn. in 1972, "Jilly from Philly" always had soul. While others may have acquired theirs within the confines of the church, Scott's was bred in the festive streets of Philly, where live instrumentation and soul-stirring vocal performances were the norm, as well as the standard. Singers usually are past the fright that singing in front of a live audience can bring by the time they hit puberty, but Scott is an anomaly in most aspects, including this one, being that her first standing ovation came after belting out the "Theme From Mahogany" at Sophomore Day in high school.
That experience gave her musical itch like none other up to that point. Graduating high school and attending Temple University, Scott would ultimately become a teacher in addition to moonlighting as a performer on the local circuit. But after her enthusiastic ideas were met with trepidation, the singer decided to quit schooling children and start giving music lovers a tutorial in the art of performance full-time, which served as the beginning of her musical career.
"That's where I learned how to connect with folks," said Scott in a profile in the Los Angeles Times in December of 2000. She was recalling the days she spent on the mic in cramped coffeehouses and tiny theaters. Very often there was nothing but a small stage and people a few feet from where she stood. "I was just reading poetry from my book. Not every word had the same voice. In that space I had to feel every ounce of hurt, every ounce of love."
But those humbling beginnings blossomed into something much more when Scott aligned herself with DJ Jazzy Jeff -- whom brought the talented songstress to his Touch of Jazz studio to collaborate -- and nothing was the same thereafter. Soon, lyrics that Scott had penned herself would be the crux of a Grammy Award-winning song, "You Got Me" by the Roots, with Erykah Badu in place of her on the commercial release of the track.
She recorded a demo, with the first song being "A Long Walk." Jazzy Jeff shopped it around to various labels, sans a bio or accompanying photo. That was a decision that was made to showcase Scott's artistic worth rather than her physical metrics. Steve Mckeever, who had just launched his Epic Records-affiliated Hidden Beach label, decided to take a chance on the rising talent and signed her as the flagship artist in 1999.
Watch Jill Scott's "Gettin' in the Way" Video
Within a year, Scott's first LP, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, would be released. Containing elements of poetry, heart-wrenching soul and more delightful numbers, the album serves as a glimpse into the life of Jilly from Philly and stories of love. After a brief "Jilltro," listeners get their first taste of her skill on "Do You Remember Me," an airy selection that's reminiscent of a tune sung in a speakeasy without coming off as dated or pedestrian. The upbeat interlude, "Exclusively" captures her taking it back to her spoken word days and spinning a tale of an encounter with "the other woman."
This leads to the moment where Who Is Jill Scott? truly hits its stride, which is the mellow offering "Gettin' in the Way." Released as the first single from the album, Scott goes full Philly, singing, "Sister girl, I know you don't understand / But you're gonna have to understand he's my man now / What you've had is gone, I think it's sweet / Our thing is stronger than any lie you can tell on me." She confronts the man-snatcher without any feelings or words being spared.
After that business is taken care of, the songbird take us -- as well as her lover -- on "A Long Walk" and the stroll is nothing short of pleasant. Implementing small talk with virtues from the Bible and the Quaran, Scott taps into the book of Badu, but without sacrificing an ounce of her own distinct style in the process. "I Think It's Better" ranks highest of the intermissions on the album and sets the stage for her most vulnerable moment on the project, "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)." Dedicated to Scott's then-husband, Lyzel Williams, "He Loves Me" was never released as an official single from the album, but became a hit in its own right due to immense support from fans who fell in love her words -- this was a very popular track at the singer's live shows.
Watch Jill Scott Perform "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)"
Speaking of the live show, we're placed front and center in the first row on the Who Is Jill Scott? standout, "It's Love," before getting served up with the melodic number, "The Way," which showcases the unique brilliance in Scott's style of songwriting especially when it comes to sexual affairs. Her poetic sex celebration continues on "Love Rain": "Love slipped from my lips / Dripped down my chin / And landed in his lap." On the opposite end of the spectrum with "Slowly Surely," she reflects on the downsides of love, where she admits, "I just don't know, where I should go."
"One Is The Magic #" continues the good vibes with its Latin-tinged soundbed, while "Brotha" is an uplifting ditty meant to empower and celebrate the black man. She shows where her loyalty lies in terms of "the cause." Who Is Jill Scott? reaches its sensuous climax with the slow-burner, "Try Me," but she opts for detailed imagery centered around love and trust rather than an all-out lustful affair. "If I needed you to be cool with my strength, could you do it / You're constantly talking about how much you love me, want me, need me, you told me stop talking / No more conversation necessary," she coos. Her debut LP ends with the motivational tune, aptly titled "Try," and features her dropping gems of inspiration to the younger generation of black women worldwide. This is a purposeful close to a stellar body of work.
Jill Scott's drawing power and marketability may have been in question prior to the release of Who Is Jill Scott?, but by the end of 2000, the album was past half a million copies sold and was eventually certified double platinum and counting. Accolades also came in droves, with the LP earning a Grammy nomination for R&B Album of the Year in 2001, as well as individual nominations for "Gettin' in the Way," "A Long Walk" and "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)" for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively.
After two more successful album releases, Scott would transition into Hollywood, where her star would rise even further after taking roles in movies like Why Did I Get Married? and Baggage Claim. Her success story is one you can't pass on reading. In 2015, Jill Scott is creeping towards legend status with her highly-anticipated fifth album, Woman, set to drop on July 24. While that project could end up being a crown jewel in Jilly from Philly's catalog, her ability to welcome her listener to find out who she truly was on her debut album is a tough act to follow.
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