Jill Scott: “The Light of the Sun”

Jill Scott’s The Light of the Sun is a very good record, borne of a very bad couple of years. You probably know exactly what I’m talking about here; certainly, Scott is not the first artist to document a period of grief and pain, to pull from the wreckage something that speaks to beauty and grace. I hear tell of one guy who had his heart broken, then locked himself in a wooded cabin to record his blood-letting songs of heartache and desolation. Scott went a different route, though; on the heels of a divorce, a brief love affair that hit the rocks but left her a son, and some brief excursions into acting, Scott comes roaring back into action with what feels, for all the world, like a classic R&B album. The Light of the Sun is more than a document of frayed nerves. It’s also a very professional record, informed by very personal sensibilities, and it already feels timeless.

Scott’s gifts are varied– she did a series of albums called Words and Sounds, hinting at her own dual love of music and poetry– and this, more than anything she’s yet done, is an album of elegant fusion. Scott is bold about basing her songs in classic soul tropes, but equally unafraid to dress them in modern apparel. She has a penchant for smooth soul on the Philly tip, but, like her hometown brothers in the Roots crew, she also has hip-hop in her blood, and again, it’s old-school and steely modern-day in equal measure; to that end, this is the most street record of her career. And in terms of what she’s doing vocally, Scott is simply without peer. Her renown is as an artist who eloquently eases from singing into spoken word and even rap, and her cadence on this record is a thing of effortless grace. That said, she is, if anything, undervalued as a straight-up soul singer, and a lot of the songs on this album are striking for the sheer, simple beauty of her performance.

The Light of the Sun is an album that ought appeal in equal measure to contemporary R&B fans but also to those who prefer the retro chic of the Soulaquarian aesthetic, and, though it has already yielded some significant radio success, it also feels like an album in a more classic sense, telling a story or at least tracing a theme. It’s all about the road to empowerment, I think, and it plays like a catalog of emotions that one might conjure in the face of a heartbreaking couple of years. There are sadness and anger, humility and aggrandizing pomp. Scott is a pilgrim on this road, and she plays in each mode with matter-of-fact honesty. For all of this, though, the record begins with a call for big-picture perspective. “Blessed” is soul music in the purest and best sense of the term– i.e., it is actually good for the soul– and its fluttering harps and strings help it go down all the easier. Scott chronicles the blessings in her life, and looks for grace in all things even as she refuses to get sappy. Her vocal is a rhythmic wonder, totally in the pocket and beat-savvy. The song is followed by the album’s hot first single, a duet with Anthony Hamilton called “So in Love.” It’s a ravishing number, sexy in the most elegant way, and though it, too, comes with a bit of a retro flair, it’s totally dancefloor-ready.

Scott can bring the swagger, but she also brings the hard-won wisdom that inspired this album in the first place. The album is both seductive and spiritual, and its more introspective moments are among its most moving. There is a terrific R&B slow jam– reminding me a little of Big Boi’s song “Hustle Blood,” of all things– called “So Gone,” a sexual song that expresses both longing and regret and ends up echoing the biblical teaching about the irresistible impulses of the flesh: “Why does my body ignore what my mind says?” she sings in the midst of a sordid tryst, and she isn’t judgmental so much as she is simply disappointed in herself. The song is followed– and not by accident, I wouldn’t think– by a prayer for divine intervention. “Hear My Call” is straight modern gospel, an inspirational ballad that soars atop strings and a dynamite vocal from Scott. It could almost pass for Christian pop, really, but in the context of this record’s soul journey, it rings true.

That’s especially the case given how seamlessly Scott pulls her different gifts and passions together here, and how steadily she pushes her art forward; there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a profoundly heartfelt and personal expression of self, the professional production and steely beats notwithstanding. And she does push herself here; album highlight “La BOOM Vent Suite” is a magnificent nine-minute, three-part arrangement that traces a journey from defiance into something a bit more measured and wise. The seamlessness of the arrangement is a wonder to behold, moving as it does from straight funk into something closer to jazz, and Scott is, once again, a showstopper. What makes it the best thing here, though, is simply that it’s such a an ass-shaking good time, particularly in the sing-along first movement. Honorable second place goes to a tune called “All Cried Out,” a kind of collision between old-school soul and hip-hop that would surely make ?uesto and the Roots crew proud; thing is, I can’t imagine ?uestlove ever allowing his band to do anything as cheerfully old-timey and fun as this song’s mash-up of ragtime piano and finger-popping percussion from human beatbox Doug E. Fresh. It could have been a novelty, but it’s not, simply because the emotions sink their hooks in so deep.

Scott ends the album purposefully, and with just as much heat as she begins it; “Womanifesto” is simply a dazzling spoken-word piece, a poem that summarizes the album’s journey and portrays the singer (and all women) as proud, but not ignorant of the humbling truths learned here; as earthy, spiritual, sexual, wise, and prone to both great success and great mistakes. Money quote: “I’m a motherf*cking G!” (Yes, she blurs it out on the album.) “I am all of this– and, indeed, the shit.” Yeah you are, Jill Scott. After that, it’s the warmth of a stand-up bass and some light drum-kit work, plus an R&B pulse and gospel swells, in a slam-bang finishing number called “Rolling Hills,” an empowering and utterly seductive song that is, I think, the most potent vocal Scott has on the whole record. It is a very good ending for a very good album– a new high watermark for Jill Scott, in fact– and though it may have been borne of a rough couple of years, it exhibits beauty and wisdom that will, I think, shine for a good long while.

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