Jill Scott: The Billboard Cover Story
A word that captures Jill Scott's vibe of late? "Free."
"That's the word I've been using," Scott says with a laugh. She's calling in from Baltimore, one of the stopovers on a promotional tour in support of her new album, "The Light of the Sun." With its June 21 release, Scott -- singer, songwriter, actor, poet -- not only ends a four-year hiatus from new music, but her fourth studio album is the first project under a recently minted distribution partnership between her Blues Babe Records and Warner Bros.
"It's exciting, because it's on my own terms," Scott says. "I feel like my eyes are going to bulge out of my head. It's like starting all over again. Music shouldn't be a chore or feel like any kind of burden. It's free and alive. And that's where I am."
You can also find her back on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart with "So in Love," featuring Anthony Hamilton. Kelvin Wooten (Raphael Saadiq, Mary J. Blige) produced the breezy lead single, which gave Scott the highest debut of her career when it bowed at No. 43. Having since broken into the top 10 (No. 10) on the tally, the song also ascends to No. 1 on Adult R&B. Among the stations playing "So in Love" in power rotation is adult R&B WYLD New Orleans, whose PD notes that Scott's return adds another fortifying voice to the R&B scene.
Video: Jill Scott featuring Anthony Hamilton, "So in Love"
"R&B is thriving right now with good quality records from urban AC and urban mainstream acts like Charlie Wilson, R. Kelly, Trey Songz, Ledisi and now Jill," says Derrick Corbett, director of urban programming for WYLD parent Clear Channel. " 'So in Love' is vibrant, and the combination of Jill and Anthony gives you a Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway feel. It's feel-good music that sounds good on the radio."
Scott's re-emergence also signals a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Her long walk back to this point started nearly two years ago following a concerted focus on her acting career. Those acting highs during the last four years included such projects as HBO's critically acclaimed "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency." Those were tempered, however, by her divorce from husband Lyzel Williams in 2007, after six years of marriage. A year later, Scott was engaged to her former drummer, Lil' John Roberts, and carrying her first child, Jett Hamilton Roberts. After her son's birth in 2009, Scott broke up with her fiancé.
Then another low point arrived in 2010 when irreconcilable differences arose between Scott and Hidden Beach Recordings, her home for 10 years. In the midst of recording songs for "The Light of the Sun," she was countersued by Hidden Beach, which claimed she had exited halfway through a six-album contract. The lawsuit was settled earlier this year, with Hidden Beach slated to release the first album in a series of previously unreleased Scott music, "Just Before Dawn," in August.
"That process wasn't fun for anyone involved," says Shawn Gee, her longtime business partner and president/CEO of Sports & Entertainment Financial Group, whose clients include Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Drake. "Now both sides are moving forward."
In Scott's case, it meant finding a partner that fit with her expanding entrepreneurial mind-set. "Everyone was interested in Jill but not in the structure we were interested in," Gee says. "Some came with normal royalty-based deals and others with joint ventures. Warner Bros. was very open to a unique structure."
The pact between Warner and Blues Babe is a pure distribution deal complemented by a contracted marketing budget for the singer's projects. "From an economic perspective, Jill gets to maximize the profit potential of her record sales. And from the operational side, we get the muscle and machine behind a major-label artist," Gee says, adding that there was only one other act, the White Stripes, with such a deal at Warner.
Warner Bros. Records co-president/CEO Todd Moscowitz, whose label also recently inked a deal with Rick Ross' Maybach Music, says, "This deal gives Blues Babe the ability to establish itself as a brand, and gives Jill and her team the ability to direct the marketing and promotion of her projects. Jill is an important artist for Warner Bros. as we rebuild our roster. Very few make that cut as 'career artists,' and she's clearly one of them -- with enormous growth potential internationally."
Jill Scott, "Le Boom Vent Suite"
Scott first came to national attention in 2000 when Hidden Beach released her critically acclaimed debut, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1." Born in Philadelphia, she attended Temple University and became active in the local poetry scene. Influenced by Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni and Chaka Khan, Scott segued into music and co-wrote the Roots' 1999 hit "You Got Me." Powered by her own R&B hits -- "A Long Walk" (No. 9) and "The Way" (No. 15) -- her first album peaked at No. 2 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and has since sold 2.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Between a live album and a compilation of collaborations with other singers, two more studio albums were released before Scott and Hidden Beach severed ties. "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2" (2004, 880,000) debuted at No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 3 on the Billboard 200. "The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3" (2007, 665,000) peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Scott is also a three-time Grammy Award winner, most recently for best urban/alternative performance in 2007 for "Daydreamin' " with Wasalu Muhammad Jaco.
But now it's time for something new. Equal parts soulful, sultry, sassy, introspective and empowering, the vibrant 15-song "Light of the Sun" re-establishes the singer's unique love affair with words and penchant for integrating everything from R&B, hip-hop, jazz, gospel and improvisation into her music. Scott and songwriter J.R. Hutson (Musiq Soulchild, Keke Wyatt) executive-produced "Light," with additional production contributions from Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, aka Dre & Vidal (Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey), and Warryn Campbell (Kanye West, Alicia Keys), among others. In addition to Hamilton, the guest list features Eve, Doug E. Fresh and Paul Wall. Beyond the single, additional standout tracks include "Blessed," a tribute to her son; the emotion-packed "Hear My Call," about healing a broken heart; female anthem "Rolling Hills"; the illuminating treatise "Womanifesto"; and the playful "Le Boom Vent Suite."
Hutson, who worked with Scott for the first time on 2007's "The Real Thing," says "Le Boom" is a perfect example of the singer's desire to destroy more boundaries and let whatever happens in the studio happen. "She Jay-Z-ed that song," he says. "Singing as she was writing it. And when we stopped the tape, that's what the song was. She has such a dedication to being honest -- that permeates her music." All Scott wanted, she says, was to choose collaborators who could "embody the energy I was going for. Without any pretense, without knowing what I was going to say . . . there was no guidance except for the energy and spirit in the room. I'm a big Salvador Dali fan; he put his blood and everything else he had in his painting. That's how it is for me. There's no blood on this record, but there sure is some heart."
In ramping up the marketing/promotional strategy for "The Light of the Sun," Gee outlined four objectives: engage the core fan, re-engage the outer core fan who saw her movies but didn't buy her last two albums, reach new fans and strengthen her presence overseas. The ball started rolling last year when Scott co-headlined with Maxwell on a national, 20-date arena tour that finished at No. 7 among the top R&B/hip-hop tours, according to Billboard Boxscore, grossing $10.2 million from 14 shows.
The tour was the first manifestation of a deal signed last spring with Live Nation/Haymon Ventures to further Scott's touring beyond the theater circuit. Next up is the companies' production of the Jill Scott Summer Block Party. Presented by Budweiser Superfest, the 18-city trek kicks off July 28 in New York with special guests Hamilton and Mint Condition, host Doug E. Fresh and music provided by DJ Jazzy Jeff. A special concert ticket/album preorder bundle went on sale June 17 at LiveNation.com and MissJillScott.com.
Video: Jill Scott on "The Mo'Nique Show"
"Maxwell and Sade, that's my litmus test," Gee says. "That's where I see Jill fitting in. Touring is a part of her career that has constantly grown. R&B remains a very viable market not only from an album sales perspective but from the touring perspective as well." Gee adds that the multi-tour deal with Live Nation/Haymon Ventures isn't limited to just large amphitheater/arena tours. Both sides are envisioning other routes to help grow the Jill Scott brand. These include a small-theater tour described as a one-woman show with a Broadway-esque type of feel.
Scott's just-wrapped European promotional tour was preceded by major showcases in Los Angeles and New York. Recent guest appearances include the American Poetry Workshop at the White House, a one-hour BET special hosted by Mo'Nique, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" In addition to being featured earlier this month on NPR's "First Listen," Scott taped six behind-the-scenes vignettes posted exclusively on Sundays on Essence.com. "Light of the Sundays," which wrapped June 19, featured Scott sharing insights about the new album, her musical influences and footage from the "So in Love" video. Prior to starting the Block Party tour, Scott will be among the slate of headliners at the Essence Music Festival (July 1-3) in New Orleans.
"It's a welcome treat that she's back with new music and performing again at the festival," Essence entertainment director Cori Murray says. "When Jill performs, she really goes there. You know you're going to get great songs with a little opera, hip-hop, R&B, vocal acrobatics . . . She brings it."
While Scott's three-year deal for her intimate apparel line with Ashley Stewart has ended, Gee says he and the singer are carefully eyeing other opportunities and entrepreneurial ventures that make sense in regard to expanding her brand. In the meantime, the singer and her Blues Babe Foundation are gearing up for its annual youth summer camp in August. The 6-year-old organization provides educational and social opportunities for children in Scott's North Philadelphia neighborhood.
Now calling Los Angeles home, Scott says she feels closer to her 2000 self than she's ever been. And her takeaway from the last four years? That it's better to work smart than hard. "I've missed myself," she says. "I'm sassy again, stronger. Now I understand this industry to a certain extent, and know how I work best. Having my son was one of the key factors in me leaving the old label. I need him to see me be as amazing as I can be so he feels fearless. I haven't arrived at amazing yet. I'm in the process. But I want him to see me grow. I want to get another 30 years out of this amazing life of being an artist."