The identity of the person who coined the term “neo-soul” has remained a mystery. And everyone has a differing opinion as to who exactly was the inventor of the inhibited genre. But what’s fact is that it was a pigeonhole that many R&B artists were shoved into and a pigeonhole that many struggled to get out of, with few careers making it out alive. Some artists settled for such a label and found resolve in tailoring their style and sound to the stereotypes of the genre. Others were desperate to strip themselves of such a label and purposely tampered with their style and sound, alienating their fanbases to varying degrees. And then comes Jaguar Wright.
Bursting onto the scene when neo-soul was slowly ascending from its peak, Jaguar brought a fierce intensity to the game and turned quite a few heads with her brash and aggressive 2002 debut, Denials, Delusions, and Decisions. Her anger, passion, and vehemence for the music and her subject matters at hand fueled her album to Gold-status off the strength of one lone single, “The What Ifs.”
But apparently, Jaguar’s intensity was too much for mainstream record label execs to handle and subsequent attempts to water-down her persona led to her severing ties with MCA and the shelving of her sophomore release, And Your Point Is? Undeterred, Jag opted for the foolproof route many artists of her stature take; the indie route. Signing with Artemis (a predominantly-rock indie) in late 2004, Jag culled the best of Point, combined it with fresh material and serviced it to the public this past summer with the appropriately titled, Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul.
Truth in advertising as well, Jaguar renounces her crown of a neo-soul diva and proves true the adapted clich? about the grass being greener on the older side of the fence. But before she can officially move on, she must eulogize the death of her first “true love” and she does so exquisitely on the album intro, Dear John.
Over a simple drum backbeat and distorted backups, Jaguar expresses her appreciation for what her involvement in the neo-soul genre helped her accomplish but quickly moves on to the meat of the album. Lead single, Free, showcases a tamer, more sedated Jaguar to lukewarm effect. Hotrunner’s soulful piano and hip-hop backbeat create a lush contrast but Jaguar seems kinda bored with the whole process of kicking her triflin man to the curb.
Thankfully, Mike City quickly redeems the album with his brilliant Let Me Be The One. A man who has yet to compose a bad song, Mike lets his genius naturally bring out Jaguar’s sedated side and puts in her in an atmosphere that allows her natural emotions to draw out the song, instead of letting the emotion sound forced and controlled. Who knew a simple piano, drum-kick and bassline could possess so much understated power? Even more impressive is how Chucky Thompson takes the backbeat from Clipse’s mega-hit “Grindin” and turns it into the soulful ode that he does on Timing.
The brilliance escalates as Raphael Saadiq – a true urban legend – steps up to the conductor’s podium and graces the album with 4 moments of sheer virtuosity. Told Ya puts a fresh spin on the tired concept of hardheaded girlfriends not listening to their good-intentioned girlfriends about no-good men with nothing but a paper-thin bassline and cyclical drum taps. He makes a one-night stand sound classy with his romantic bassline and pitter-pat drum taps working around Jaguar’s seductive vocals on My Place.
He ups the funk on his bass and makes being a gold digger sound sophisticated as hell while Jag pimps potential suitors strictly for drinks with her sneaky growl on One More Drink. But he stops the show momentarily when his funk gets out of control and Jag’s pen runs wild and deep on the candid Ecstasy, crafting one of the illest hooks to be heard.
Raphael would’ve rendered the rest of the production offers obsolete had they not been of such a high-caliber. Carvin and Ivan turn Jaguar’s ode to her son, Flower, into a theatrical spectacle, the production accentuating her vocals perfectly and again, letting the natural emotion work its magic instead of overpowering it. Scott Storch dirties the groove up a bit with his rock guitars and sleigh bells on So High, Jag drizzling her vocals with sex appeal like maple syrup on a stack of pancakes.
James Poyser works his magic on Been Here Before, taking a muted funk bassline and looping it around a wah-wah peddle and yet another hip-hop backbeat and melding it with Jag’s frustrated vocals, her truly sounding torn between her heart and mind over the poisoned apple called her man that she’s tempted to bite into once again. Following that is a quite tame and overlong rendition of the Shirley Brown classic, Woman 2 Woman. Preceded by an interlude with a drunk Jaguar calling her man’s mistress to break things down to her, Jag’s cover is decent and a good listen but sounds a bit too sedated and “safe” even for her. If you’re going to do a cover, you should at least make it seem original and with this one, Jag seems to simply be going thru the motions.
But it really doesn’t matter because truly, the rest of the album seems like fodder when compared to the centerpiece; Do Your Worst. Words cannot describe how amazingly Jaguar details the emotions a broken heart experiences within a 12-minute timeframe and with nothing but her vocals. She begins sounding a bit peed off at her man’s cockiness and unapologetic demeanor. Then the pain subtly breaks thru on the first hook as she sounds a bit hesitant to encourage her man to do his worst.
As the second verse progresses, she seems to work thru the pain and inspire herself by deriding her man thru words that sound repeated in her head to solidify her determination. Then comes the bridge where she reaches her breaking point that spills over into the preceding hooks and ad-libs that signify her resilience as a one-woman army being strengthened to break and end the cycle of pain and heartbreak. Quite possibly the best 12:00 of words and sounds put to wax all year.
In fact, this could very well be the best 68:00 of words and sounds put to wax all year. Jaguar not only divorced neo, she brought down the empire, killed the king, and buried it all 6 feet under and then spat on its grave. And the method in which she did so is sheer genius as well. Instead of making a strictly soul record, she opted for a more expansive route and recorded a solid R&B album laced with soul in its veins.
She proved that R&B and soul didn’t have to be as limited as neo-soul made it out to be and that its best to appreciate the music for its brilliance instead of labeling it to make it easier to identify and understand. Neo-soul was a real and fun and real fun genre while it lasted. But Jaguar proved we’re certainly better off without it.
May Neo-Soul Rest In Peace.