In the late ’90s and early aughts, before Tumblr and other social media sites became havens for all visions of gender and expressions of bodies, it would have been easy to think that sex was purely the purview of conventionally attractive, thin, young straight men and women. For the MTV generation, love was the reward for being hot and hetero.
Film and television reinforced this message (“The Bachelor” and “Extreme Makeover” took it to the extreme), but so did music. From boy bands, who socialized young girls to puritanically fixate on love and relationships, to hip-hop, which was the domain of hedonists. This was the era that gave us Akinyele’s “Put It in Your Mouth” and Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” released about six years apart, with the Nas and Bravehearts’ “Oochie Wally” surfacing in between.
To be regular, average, normal was in defiance of that era’s celebrity maximalism. It was a healthy body image and enthusiastic consent; it was the freedom to be wholesome instead of pitching moralistically between abstinence and nastiness. Regular was the quiet that filled the room after turning off a blaring celebrity entertainment show. It had ties to people and places and ideas, instead of decamping for New York or L.A. It was fat people loving skinny people, and vice versa. It was queerness beyond sex. Normal was variety and divergence; it was something other than the bleached blondes, video vixens, six-packs, brooding faces that filled our screens. But in this environment, who could be sure how average people did it? When Jill Scott released her debut album, Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 in 2000, there were still too few chronicles of what love and sex were like for the “average” woman.
It began with the lead single “Love Rain.” The first verse documents the courtship rituals of two regular young people from Scott’s hometown of Philadelphia: long walks, long talks, and a lot of sex, all of which accompanies the rapid demise of summer love. Verse two opens the dams: “Love slipped from my lips, dripped down my chin and landed in his lap,” she sings, briefly tucking her airy soprano away in favor of breathing out the words in syncopated puffs of hot breath. The graphic lyric delivered a jolt. This was the same year that Dead Prez released the #sapiosexual anthem “Mind Sex,” and here was Scott lolling in allusive pleasure. The jiggy era was also at full speed, dousing pop culture with images of masculine, capitalist virility. But this wasn’t a cumshot; this was, as Scott wrote it, love.
What Scott offered was the perspective of a “regular” woman standing in her sexuality. Of course, Scott is beautiful. Her body language is open. She is ample and walks with meaning. Her smize confirms it. But she presented as an alternative to a world swayed by thinness, by straight hair, by whiteness. Not to make it about her body, but Scott made it about her body. “There are some really fine women with heart and mind and soul and body, who want a man with the same qualities,” she said in a Washington Post interview near the end of her debut year. “Not all of us are 5-foot-9 and perfectly slim, with big boobs that sit up in the air. In fact, none of us are like that.”
On Who Is Jill Scott?, the singer channeled the feisty funk of Betty Davis’ Nasty Gal and the soft-lensed romance of Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel. She found ways of putting bass in her soprano voice, and sighing at the opposite end. Love was to be found in others, but also in oneself: “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” documented her real-life partnership with the relatable passion and intensity of many heady beginnings, and “One Is The Magic #” presented solitude as liberation. “The Way” is a peek at the way women schedule their lives around sex. She tells a girlfriend she’s passing on the club for a visit from her man; “As much as I like to shake my thang on the dance floor/I got another nasty, freaky, just right way in mind/Tonight I’m gonna beat the high score.” Scott’s stories of love and mutually pleasurable sex countered the inequitable hedonism of Puffy’s shiny suit rap, big-dick rock bands, and the weaponized testosterone of boy bands.
And Scott also populated her music with images of regular people. The ever-present chorus of friends offering loving, ribbing commentary on each other’s lives, children scampering across playgrounds and playing clapping games, old folks sitting on porches or playing dominoes, dudes hanging out on the corner, the smell of cooking wafting into a neighbor’s window. Who Is Jill Scott? situated the musician’s inner world within a neighborhood, brimming with people living their lives, and celebrated the social fabric of her community. It was a head-nod in passing, a shout across the street, and the mixing of generations.
Videos for songs like “A Long Walk” and “Gettin’ In The Way” brought those images to life, and situated Scott as the girl-next-door for a different side of America. The latter video opens on a shot of a man in the shower—hair braided, muscular, deep brown, dripping wet—and cuts to Scott, who’s casual in a red headwrap and button-up denim shirt.
Women in pop culture have always been coded, but for 20 years the parameters for black women were even more banal: beloved artists like Trina, Foxy Brown, and Lil’ Kim were tagged as raunchy, singers like Mariah Carey or Destiny’s Child were prim and unattainable divas, and those that covered up—like Da Brat and Missy Elliott—were subject to speculation regarding their sexuality. Even Erykah Badu’s introspection was seen as somehow other. Today, beautiful and talented women like SZA, Jorja Smith, Nao, Noname, Cardi B, and especially Rihanna, are beloved for their relatability—for the ways in which they speak directly to other black women. But in the context of the compartmentalized ’90s, where you were either a diva or vixen, conscious or pop, a feminist or wholesome, Scott’s ability to be simultaneously femme, sexual, black, soulful, messy, and experimental—or simply just the kind of woman you might see at the market squeezing lemons—stood out.
In her 2000 book that gave voice to Gen X’s hip-hop feminists titled When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost, Joan Morgan wrote, “Trying to capture the voice of all that is young black female was impossible… This book by its lonesome won’t give you the truth. Truth is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes, and rework the chorus.” Who Is Jill Scott? is a submission in service of these truths. A song like “Gettin’ In The Way” reveals the damage of the patriarchy on relationships between women, but the track that precedes it affords Scott more nuance. “Exclusively” is the giddy internal monologue of a person basking in morning sex over a Fender Rhodes and lazy drums, on her way to get orange juice. The cute new girl flares up Scott’s “women’s intuition, some kind of insecurity” and sniffs at her—investigating the scent of Scott’s morning romp—and asks, “Raheem, right?” Scott responds as the music falls away: “Right.”
At the turn of the century, Philly was vibrating. Musicians such as the Roots and Musiq Soulchild were pioneering alternative ideas in hip-hop and R&B. Beanie Sigel was rolling with the Roc. The Million Woman March, a grassroots event in support of black women, families, and community, drew hundreds of thousands of people to the city in 1997. Allen Iverson was with the Sixers and his playing and unmitigated swagger had sports media frothing.
Scott didn’t just benefit from this energy, she absorbed and helped sustain it through her music. Keen-eyed fans know Jill Scott’s name from the liner notes of the Root’s fourth album, 1999’s Things Fall Apart. Alongside a pre-fame Scott Storch, she co-wrote the Philly band’s breakout single, “You Got Me.” When Storch met Scott, she was working at an Urban Outfitters in Philly. Two years later, their finished song for the Roots, featuring Scott on the hook, was derailed by the band’s label. Scott would be swapped for Badu, then the high priestess of neo soul, who already commanded a large fanbase. (There was no bad blood between the two). It became a Grammy Award-winning song, and the Roots took Scott on the road so fans knew that ‘Jilly from Philly’—who announced herself at shows by spelling out her full name as a jazzy riff—was here to stay.
And Scott’s at