Jill Scott’s extraordinary debut signaled the birth of an artist with bottomless potential, one who could feasibly deliver on that promise again and again, inventively and steadily, over the course of many years and many records. Instead, the woman who once proclaimed, “Complacency you ain’t gon’ get me, no no no” has slipped into some kind of aural and thematic monotony. The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3 begins deceptively: “Let It Be” embodies everything we love about Scott—a unique idiom, a vocal range that can figuratively and literally reach the headiness of Minnie Riperton and the expansive depths of Aretha Franklin, and a refusal to be squeezed into any one musical form or format—while the title track kicks off the album proper with the kind of dirty, sexy guitar lick you’d expect to hear in a nighttime soap like Melrose Place. The brassy, bold lead single, “Hate On Me,” takes on Internet haters (who knew she had any, and why?!) with a gusto only Scott could summon: “Ooh, if I gave you peaches/Out of my own garden/And I made you a peach pie/Would you slap me out?”
But The Real Thing then swiftly descends into over half an hour of sex songs you’d expect to hear at the tail end of a Janet Jackson album. The schmaltzy horns of “Come See Me,” the first and worst of the offenders, provides more of a hook than Scott’s shapeless, aimless chorus (“I wanna feel passion and desire baby,” etc.), while some of the more explicit passages from “Epiphany” (“Rode Mt. Saint Scott ‘til ooooo/Creamy lava landed on my skin and neck”) sound substandard coming from the woman who wrote “Love Rain.” The Scott Storch-produced track, however, is one of the record’s more memorable, highlighting Scott’s poetic rhymes and impeccable phrasing (“I must…/Remember…/To thank him…/Later”) and featuring an ending that adds the kind of emotional and intellectual weight to sex that Janet’s music has been missing since before Scott and Storch made their mark co-penning The Roots’ “You Got Me.” That weight is felt only fleetingly throughout the album; “Celibacy Blues” has to be the first blues song about a battery-powered back massager, and Scott strays from the topic at hand (pun intended) with “How It Make You Feel,” in which she poses the question: “What if, poof, every black female in the world disappeared?”
The Right Thing ends how it begins: The edgy “Breathe” includes rapped verses and promises of musical variety, but the album is all soft and mushy in the middle, and while that makes for a nice extended metaphor, it also makes for a less than arousing listen. Scott’s talents as a vocalist and songwriter haven’t been diminished, but her story might soon be that she peaked too early and has yet to produce an album as consistent as her debut. The Real Thing isn’t exactly a step down from the last volume, 2004’s Beautifully Human, but it’s conceptually even less diverse, which makes it her weakest album to date. And a quick revisit of Who is Jill Scott? and Experience: Jill Scott renders it even more disappointing.