In Questlove’s recent autobiography Mo Meta Blues, he describes the formation of the Soulquarians, a collective which coalesced during recording sessions for his Roots’ Things Fall Apart, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. Its core members were James Poyser, D’Angelo, J Dilla and himself, all who had the astrological sign of Aquarius. It quickly evolved into shorthand for a period which saw the peak of neo-soul as an artistic movement.
Its genesis began during a series of house jams the Roots threw in Philadelphia, which attracted fledging local singers like Bilal, Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott; ambitious rappers like Eve and Beanie Sigel (both of whom appear on Things Fall Apart); and young vocalists like India.Arie and Jazmine Sullivan, the latter still in her early teens at the time. (Those informal jams were succeeded by Black Lily, a club event hosted by Roots’ backing vocalists the Jazzyfatnastees.) The Soulquarians orbit expanded to DJ Jazzy Jeff (who produced Scott’s debut), Vikter Duplaix (who worked with Poyser on his album), Raphael Saadiq, Mos Def and Q-Tip; as well as frequent Roots collaborators Dice Raw, Scratch, Jaguar Wright, Rahzel and Ursula Rucker. There was even talk of creating a Soulquarians Big Band similar to Duke Ellington’s orchestra – a dream collaboration that was difficult to take seriously given the platinum-certified egos involved, but was fun to fantasize about anyway.
The Soulquarians’ era was brief. By the time D’Angelo’s worldwide Voodoo tour concluded in 2001, “Everyone was neo-souled out,” writes Questlove in his book. He adds that Common’s 2002 album Electric Circus, which tried to shift from a groove-oriented sound that was coagulating into boring Urban Adult Contemporary – a term that persists to this day – into a more vibrant kind of funk-rock, “was the twilight of the Soulquarians, the last gasp of the Utopian feeling that had started in 1997.” The mixed reception given to Electric Circus, a “kitchen sink album” with a cover that depicts the Soulquarians universe in a massive photo-collage, belies this art colony’s importance in hip-hop and modern soul music.
(Rhapsody – April 16, 2014)
Just like the woman herself, Jill Scott’s voice is a thing of beauty. She can make it boom and bellow like a gospel-trained diva on “Golden,” and swagger and growl like the blues on “You Don’t Know.” She can make it sound honeyed and soothing like an R&B songbird on “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat),” and hesitant yet clear-eyed, as if she were talking to herself, on “So Gone (What My Mind Says).” She can do spoken word on “Love Rain,” and rap confidently on Young Jeezy’s “Trapped.” And on Jazzy Jeff’s “We Live in Philly,” she evokes a club girl dreaming up adventures for several delightful minutes, and having visions of local legends like Dr. Julius Erving and Patti LaBelle.
When Scott emerged in 2000 with Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, many critics favorably compared her virtuoso talent to another neo-soul diva, Erykah Badu. To some, Scott was more warm and accessible, while Badu – who also released an album that year in Mama’s Gun — could seem mannered by comparison. But as time passed, both musicians’ strengths became apparent. Badu is a fearless trickster who brings provocative sounds and ideas to modern soul. Scott usually sticks to the genre’s stock-in-trade of love songs. Ever since the divorce that precipitated 2007’s The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3, she has explored heartbreak, loneliness, and the confusion of short-lasting affairs. She explores matters of the heart with deftness and skill.
Perhaps it’s Scott’s innate warmth that has made her audience stick around while she recedes from the spotlight, sometimes to indulge in multimedia escapades like acting in the recent Get On Up: The James Brown Story, other times just to live life. Her new Woman is only her 5th album in 15 years, and her first in four. If early singles like “Closure” and “You Don’t Know” are any indication, it will be much blustery and funkier than what she’s done before. If it’s anything like her previous work, Woman will be well worth the wait.
(Rhapsody – July 17, 2015)