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Jill Scott's Evolution Is 'The Real Thing'

Never doubt Mary J. Blige's soul, Macy Gray's voice or Beyonce's ambition. Don't assume Rihanna and Ciara won't grow up, and don't underrate the up-and-coming Keyshia Cole. But above all, be sure of this: In the sometimes bewildering plethora of R&B heroines, the solidity of Philadelphia's Jill Scott remains unmatched.

The Real Thing is Scott's third solo album and first in three years. Scott did put out a duets album called Collaborations in January, where she siphoned off her strong interests in hip-hop, jazz and even gospel, half the time on songs she didn't write. That left her free to make the new one the most purely pop record of her career. For the most part, The Real Thing is a murmured, whispered piece of work that at first I took for a retreat.

After listening to "Family Reunion" on 2004's Beautifully Human again, I realized that the new album had its own kind of integrity. I remembered that I love Scott for the brains, heart and class she brings to the commonplaces of African-American culture, from hip-hop and gospel to the game of spades they're playing at that family reunion. This pop album is just another example. The conceit, and maybe the reality, of The Real Thing is that it chronicles the end of one relationship and the beginning of another. But Scott smartens up that formula in a way that even Beyonce could learn from.

Early on, the eroticism of such songs as "Epiphany" puts the average bootylicious babe to shame. And right after "Celibacy Blues," at the end of the album, Scott is ready to break through to another epiphany. Alone, it might seem like pandering, and I'm sure some sobersides will think it is pandering. Coming where it does on the record, however, it's pure life force, every bit as sane and well-observed as "Family Reunion." The title is "All I," and Jill Scott puts her all into it.

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Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.