By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2
The more I listen to Jill Scott's second studio album, the less I like it. It's growing off me, I guess. The album's elegant-to-a-fault filler and parade of undernourished melodies have begun to taint its two or three highlights. After six or seven plays, her vocal flights of fancy are beginning to remind me that the noun "scat" has two meanings.
Okay, that last crack was too harsh, and maybe I'm missing something--that happens, after all, and Scott is a complex artist even when her music isn't wildly interesting. Part of her appeal is that she's comfortable purring and growling in the gaps between contrasting identities. She's Blossom Dearie one moment, Millie Jackson the next, earthy and genteel, revealing and distant, a feminist sex kitten, a bohemian superstar, an excitingly multitalented original and a pretentious bore.
"I am not afraid to be your lady, I am not afraid to be your whore," she sings on "I'm Not Afraid" over a cool sub-bass, a brittle snare, and a spongy synthesizer. Despite the song's title, Scott, a former schoolteacher, doesn't contract "I" and "am." This formality mostly serves a rhythmic/metrical end, giving the song's refrain a staccato, automaton quality that complements that businesslike snare. But "I am" instead of "I'm" also conveys authority and control. Scott is in control of which roles she'll play and when, and she's in control of her grammar. Start resorting to lazy contractions, she seems to say, and not only will your college term papers come back lavishly adorned with red ink, but pretty soon you will be playing the whore when you do not want to. Now, in most cases I like contractions. Also I'm not afraid to say that "the essence of glue/I will stick to you," another line from "I'm Not Afraid," is a rather fussy way to trot out one of the oldest analogies in the book, or that the florid way she stretches out "glue" is less jazzy than--wait, is she punning?--tacky.
Elsewhere Scott fires off some inspired vocal ad libs, especially on the smooth and sprightly single "Golden" and the tough "Bedda at Home," one of the few tunes not redolent of late-'70s/early-'80s jazz-tinged R&B or R&B-led fusion. Too often, though, her playful singing, often inspired by the garish virtuosity of Minnie Riperton, is technically impressive but emotionally hollow. Especially when Scott goes into hyperbreathy mode, another contrast emerges: Beautifully Human is both functionally atmospheric and notably irritating. The solution: Don't listen closely.