I'm taking my freedom / Pulling it off the shelf / Putting it on my chain / Wearing it round my neck ...
It's Monday morning, a holiday, and Jill Scott's greeting over the phone is like warm maple syrup. She practically sings hello. "Happy Martin Luther King Day," she chimes. The soul singer is calling from her native Philadelphia, where she's promoting her acclaimed sophomore album, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2. By this time, the record is already gold-certified and steadily climbing to platinum sales.
She's a month away from picking up a Grammy for "Cross My Mind," a prime cut off of Beautifully Human, and nearly two months away from kicking off her national "Big Beautiful" tour, which stops at Constitution Hall Wednesday night and March 10 and at the Meyerhoff on March 29. Scott's hit single "Golden" has been a mainstay on urban radio for months now. A jazz-spiced funk number, the song is a sunny celebration of self -- one of those breezy, feel-good tunes that sticks in your head.
Wherever I choose to go / It will take me far / I'm living my life like it's golden / Living my life like it's golden ...
It's been four years since Scott dropped on the urban-pop scene, seemingly coming out of nowhere with a slick, soulful brew reminiscent of Roberta Flack with a dash of Dinah Washington. Lyrically, her songs focused mostly on the many facets of love, romantic and spiritual. On her 2000 debut, Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1, the artist sang of soul food and long walks in parks, loneliness, self-acceptance and girl fights. The poetic record sold 2 million copies largely by word of mouth. A gold-selling double-disc live set, recorded at Constitution Hall, came out the next year.
Exhausted from the constant touring and the demands of sudden fame, Scott decided to take a break and retreat into her private world. She married long-time boyfriend, art director Lyzel Williams, and bought a home in New Jersey. She lost weight, painted her living room walls, wrote poetry and listened to lots of Minnie Riperton and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.
"I think I needed to take the time off," Scott says. "I'm a poet. And some of the things I appreciate are the highs and the lows and everything in between. I feel pretty now. I feel like I'm stepping into my queendom. I'm still 7 at heart, but I'm letting the foolish things go and being a woman. It takes a woman to say, 'I'm happy in my marriage and understand what I have.' It's awesome just being human."
The new album is essentially an extension of the first. In the lyrics, Scott still explores love and the dynamics of man-woman relationships: the need for communication ("Talk to Me"), the magic of good lovemaking ("Whatever" and "Bedda at Home"). She also turns her attention to communal love (the brilliant "Family Reunion"). When the singer-songwriter isn't sketching Sonia Sanchez-inspired images of romance, she's delving into political issues facing the black community (the heavy "Rasool" and "My Petition").
"I know people will say, 'She's such an idealist,'" Scott says. "But love, joy is real. I refuse to see that we have to live in the negative, you know. I don't want to disrespect people's mind by singing stupid things. I give people a lot of credit."
When she decided to return to the studio, the 32-year-old artist says, she wanted the process to be as organic as possible -- nothing forced. Working with the Touch of Jazz team that produced most of her debut, Raphael Saadiq and James Poyser, Scott says the atmosphere was relaxed, the process smooth and creative.
"I look for support of my words," she says. "I like the thought of having the musicians do their work and we come together. I like for it to be a collaborative effort. I'm into trying new things and expressing what I am today. With the producers, we'd have dinner; we'd play video games. There's no structure with me. Sometimes we were in the studio for, like, eight days and there was nothing."
Musically, Beautifully Human, whose cover features a cute elementary school photo of Scott, doesn't stray too far from the lush, smooth jazz-R&B; formula of the debut. But more hip-hop touches infuse the productions here and there: hard-hitting beats overlaid with looping keyboards. "Talk to Me" is the most ambitious arrangement on the CD. The song begins as a mid-tempo groover with fluttering flutes before giving way to a Broadway-style, big-band treatment.
Scott says she felt no pressure by her label to hurry back into the studio -- despite the fact that she's Hidden Beach's biggest selling artist. The singer and label president Steve McKeever have a relationship in which he respects her artistic spirit and the need for time and space.
"We're friends," she says. "His son is my godson. I can tell him I need time, and he's like, 'I hear you.' I needed to step into my life, and he understood that. Another label would have been like, 'Whatever. You need to get it crackin'. Where's the next album?' I just follow my spirit. There's no map. I've never been in a situation where I was told what to do."
Before Beautifully Human's release in August, Scott went on a well-received national buzz tour on which she previewed the new songs at small and medium-sized venues. The Philly artist is very much in her element outside the studio and in front of an audience. On stage, her tunes take on a different color. The improvisational jazz feel found in most of her songs is fleshed out more live. And there's no denying Scott's charisma and instant rapport with a crowd.
"I'm very happy and content about where I am," she says. "You have to do something in your life that brings you peace and joy, and you will find livelihood. You will. I can say that."
Check out Jill Scott at Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $55.50. Scott also plays Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., March 29. Tickets are $40.50-$60.50 and are available through Ticketmaster. Call 410-547-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com