Jaguar Wright's 'Neo' is honest blues

Music Notes

August 04, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

AS THE GREASY bass line dropped, the smoked-out backbeat kicked in and the guitars started twanging and moaning, I knew I'd be all right. Then Jaguar Wright's earthy alto fell in, ripping into "The What Ifs," the first cut off her 2002 debut, Denials, Delusions and Decisions. I knew I'd be safe.

See, I got all the right questions / And you've got all the wrong answers / And I got all of the sadness / And you end up with all the laughter ...

She took me home. I hadn't heard realness like that in a while -- a rainbow voice ornate with the blues. Knowing and wicked. Hard around the edges and silkily fluid at the center. From the first couple of notes I knew Wright, a braids-wearing chick from Philly, was no joke. As the album played on, my satisfaction deepened.

Although Denials was widely reviewed and embraced by critics, it didn't do much business on radio or at the cash registers. MCA, Wright's label at the time, gave it minimal promotion. Not long after the album quietly hit the streets, the company folded.

But Wright (whose real name is Jacquelyn Wright) didn't get lost in the shuffle. She had a baby, toured, appeared in a hip Coke commercial wailing "The What Ifs" and recorded more music. Her sophomore album, released by independent Artemis Records, is Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul. An interesting title.

"Neo means new, and there's nothing new about soul, which is what I do," says Wright, who's calling from her New Jersey home. "I'm not bringing anything new. It's the passing of the torch. I'm bringing the honesty back, reminding folks how important it is to hold on to the legacy."

I hear echoes of souls past in Wright's music. But it never feels retro. She's not simply rehashing what others have done before. Hip-hop (Wright was once a rapper in a group called the Philly Blunts) also informs her guttural approach. Her voice a kaleidoscope of sharp, distinct colors, the singer has obviously done her homework well.

Wright says, "There's a little Dinah Washington in there, some Billie Holiday, some Millie Jackson, some Randy Crawford, some Chaka Khan, Aretha, even a little Dionne Warwick. I've studied great vocalists. Every month I had [an artist] I was falling in love with. I would copy tonality, pitch, colors. There's a little bit of everybody in my voice."

Which is why I love it. On Divorcing, it's that shifting, sensual instrument of hers that anchors the arrangements, which are noticeably slicker than the ones on Denials. The debut boasted more organic live instrumentation and strong production by the Roots, James Poyser and Scott Storch. The successor, solidly produced by Raphael Saadiq, Chucky Thompson, Mike City and others, features harder programmed beats occasionally layered with live bass, guitars and strings.

"We kept it more grassroots on the first album," Wright says. "On the new one, I wanted it to be more accessible, a little more mainstream. I'm building a career here. Everything I do, there's a plan to it. I want the whole picture to be seen."

Wright pens salty, razor-edged tunes that center mostly on dramas of the heart: love for self, love for a man, getting love, losing love and all the mess in between. In the tradition of brash soul sistas like Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle and, of course, the mighty Millie Jackson, the 28-year-old artist holds nothing back. At times in her music, she can be sweet and vulnerable. But Wright will, at the drop of a funky beat, grandly cuss out a lover or a scheming chick out to get him. For good reason, there's a parental advisory sticker on both her albums.

"I write what I see in life," says the hot sauce-tongued soul singer, who grew up in a strict religious household where secular music wasn't allowed. "My music is always true to life."

Lyrically, Divorcing is a little tighter than Denials. Wright is still dealing with the messy side of love. On "Free," the album's first single, the artist basically tells her man he can split if he's not feeling the love like he used to: "I let you get away with lots / Do you love me or do you love me not / At this point it doesn't matter cause I'm truly less than flattered."

In paying homage to the soul sistas of yesterday, Wright remakes Shirley Brown's lone smash, "Woman to Woman," from 1974. She adds more tartness to the classic ballad about infidelity, warning the "heffa" who's sleeping with her man: "Woman to woman, you better have a good dental plan." But then Wright sweetens things a little with the pretty ballad "Flower," an open letter to her sons: Javoni, 12, and Samuel, 3.

Away from the stage and the studio, Wright keeps a tight lid on her personal life. It's all about the husband and kids, she says. But music is always around. She says ideas for lyrics and melodies flow in and out of her head all day. While she's planning a tour for the fall, Wright is eager to begin work on her next CD, a concept album that will musically explore the blaxploitation era.

"I don't own my gift," she says. "I don't own my talent. It was given to me. It's continuing a legacy. We got to leave something for the babies. I'm just trying to do my part. I wanna die listening to good music, so I'm just trying to get better while I'm here."

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