It's a few weeks before the Sept. 11 release of Jamiroquai's fifth Epic effort, "2001: A Funk Odyssey," and group mastermind Jay Kay feels he has something to prove. "No stone can be left unturned for

It's a few weeks before the Sept. 11 release of Jamiroquai's fifth Epic effort, "2001: A Funk Odyssey," and group mastermind Jay Kay feels he has something to prove.

"No stone can be left unturned for this record-not even a tiny little pebble," he says with a nervous snicker. "Every breathing body in this industry needs to know that Jamiroquai has returned with a real record this time."

Kay is referring to the lackluster artistic and commercial yield of 1999's "Synkronized," a collection that fell short of the expectations set by 1997's international smash "Travelling Without Moving." The latter sold 8 million copies worldwide, according to the label, compared with the former's 3 million.

"I can't deny it, we fell off-track," Kay admits. "After 'Travelling Without Moving,' I thought we were going for a walk in the park with the next album. I thought the momentum would carry us through. Instead, we got a slap in the face. It was jarring, to say the least."

It was also humbling to Kay, who admits that the lack of interest in 'Synkronized' forced him to re-examine the project's merits. "In truth, I never really locked into that album, lyrically. I wasn't there. I listen to it now, and I shake my head."

During this period of examination, Kay found himself immersed in a series of personal dramas -- which soon became creative fodder: "That's when it became clear. I need to suffer at the bottom of the pit in order to write great songs."

As he began drafting his experiences into concise musical nuggets, Kay says, the overall intention of "2001: A Funk Odyssey" took shape. "It had to be honest. It had to be emotionally real. No poseur bulls**t. And it had to groove at all times. I didn't get lost in hooks this time -- they either came naturally or not at all. Nothing was forced." In fact, he says, any song that didn't flow quickly from the outset was ditched.

"Little L," the set's first single, was written in 25 minutes, according to Kay. "It's a simple song that stands well against anything we've ever done," insists the artist. "It has a nice chorus that you're not likely to forget and sweet, unison vocals. It would have been so easy to overthink or overwrite that song, because it's so incredibly simple. But that would've killed it. I think I've finally learned when to stop working on a song."

With the aid of co-producer Rick Pope, "2001: A Funk Odyssey" shows Kay and bandmates Toby Smith and Rob Harris (both of whom share songwriting credits on the album) deftly darting between such turntable-ready dance jams as "Feels So Good" and "You Give Me Something" and softer, string-laden ballads. Perhaps most potent are the confessional "Picture of My Life" -- with its delicate acoustic guitar lines -- and the meditative, Latin-brushed "Corner of the Earth."

"I cried throughout the process of writing 'Picture of My Life,'" Kay says. "It was an act of looking at some major personal issues and understanding their lingering effects. It's about as raw as I've ever gotten in a song."

As for "Corner of the Earth," Kay says, "It sums up where I live, and I think it speaks for anyone who's in a place or a moment where they're happy. It's a spiritual song in a sense. I'm quite proud of it. I think it lyrically flows and twists nicely."

These cuts are a pleasant shift from the retro-funk dance sound that has been Jamiroquai's calling card for nearly 10 years.

Jamiroquai emerged from London's acid-jazz scene in 1992. It earned critical praise and street credibility for '93's "Emergency on Planet Earth" -- which was fueled by the now-classic dancefloor anthem "When You Gonna Learn" -- and '95's "The Return of the Space Cowboy."

Jamiroquai hit commercial pay dirt in 1997 with "Travelling Without Moving," which provided it with stateside presence -- thanks to the hit singles "Virtual Insanity" and "Cosmic Girl" -- as well as an armload of awards, including a Grammy trophy and four MTV Video Music Awards. Jamiroquai's momentum was further accelerated by 1998's "Deeper Underground," a cut from the soundtrack to "Godzilla" that topped the U.K. pop charts and earned pop radio and club play in the U.S.

Despite the lukewarm response to "Synkronized," some retailers believe that the odds are in the band's favor for 2001. "First of all, I wouldn't call the last record a major disappointment," notes James Lonten, who manages a Border Books & Music store in New York. "It did fairly well for us, and I have every reason to believe this one will do even better. It's a great record with wide appeal. It has a sophistication that will draw adults, and yet it's also a fun dance record for kids."

Marlon Creaton, manager of San-Francisco-based indie outlet Record Kitchen, believes that the way to sell this project is to bring Jamiroquai back to its core audience: the club community.

"This is an act that has always been about club culture. To build from any other point -- no matter how many pop hits you've had -- is a mistake. Clubgoers have always been very good to Jamiroquai. There's no reason to believe that it won't be a huge dance record. From there, it can build into a pop hit."

Epic started its campaign in late July, with the release of a 12-inch pressing of "Little L" to club DJs and radio mix-show programmers. So far, the track -- which has been remixed by Bob Sinclar and Boris Dlugosch -- has scored turntable play in such key U.S. cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston.

At this point, Epic is eyeing a late-August shipment of the single to pop and crossover radio. Issued in the U.K. and Continental Europe in late July, "Little L" has built into a sizable hit, despite starting out slow. In addition to getting airplay from MTV for the Stephan Sednaui-directed "Little L" videoclip, Jamiroquai is slated to appear on "Live With Regis & Kelly" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" shortly before the album's release date.

Also planned is an extensive round of touring. On Aug. 11, Jamiroquai played its first gig in two years, an open-air club event at Knebworth, England, that was sponsored by Ministry of Sound. Next, the act will perform Sept. 10 in a New York club showcase. From there, Jamiroquai will begin a fall concert trek across Europe, with dates in the U.S. slated for early 2002.

Getting back on the road is the element of this project that Kay is looking forward to most. "It feeds into my need for letting as many people know about this record as possible," he says. "I'm feeling pretty relentless about it. I worked hard on it, and I'm damn proud of it."

But what about this discovery about having to suffer for his art? Is Kay going to have to endure more personal drama before he can make another record? "God, I don't know," Kay says. "I guess the answer might have to be yes. But maybe somewhere along the line, I can find a way to write as intensely about happiness. It's certainly worth a try, isn't it?

"The truth is," Kay continues, "that life is such a roller coaster. The odds of me staying as happy as I am this very moment are not very good. Something always comes along to f**k things up. The good news is that I know how to funnel the pain into something positive. As long as I can continue writing songs, I'll never be in pain for long."

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