Neil Drumming
September 10, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The doe-eyed diva center stage at D.C.’s 9:30 Club cops a coquettish curtsy like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch — sans the blast of wind through the subway grating. With a flick of her hair, she then tips a water bottle to her lips. ”Delicious,” she coos sensually. Her hair is kinky, her lips are full, and while she’s twice as voluptuous as the famously curvy Norma Jean, this brick house in the Bob Marley-emblazoned blouse is nobody’s porcelain sex kitten.

She straightens up, ending the impersonation, and launches into songs from her new CD, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, a cool collection of romantic entreaties and poignant narratives backed by a solid mix of jazz, soul, and hip-hop. Even as the shape-shifting sister proudly sings that she could as easily be ”a computer analyst” as a ”nappy-headed queen raising the fist,” there’s no disputing: This is Jill Scott.

It’s been three years since her Grammy-nominated first album, Who is Jill Scott? — with its eclectic urban grooves and bold spoken-word interludes — quietly went platinum and landed her high among the ranks of neo-soul queens like Erykah Badu, Angle Stone, and India.Arie. Also in 2001, she treated her rabid fans to the live double CD Experience: Jill Scott 826+, which almost managed to capture her commanding stage presence. But for the most part, since then, Scott has played it surprisingly low-key. The question no longer is who is Jill Scott, but where did she disappear to? Turns out her work ethic simply is not as boundless as her talent.

”I wasn’t doing a damn thing,” Scott, 32, says dismissively, munching seafood in downtown D.C. the day after the show. ”Looking at bedrooms and getting my furniture reupholstered.” Her crimson-tinted ‘fro is pulled back, and she sports a red floral blouse and high cork heels. ”With some people, it just keeps coming and coming,” she explains. ”I need to play, or what I enjoy will become work and I’ll hate it.” So Scott took time off to ”play” — enjoying her home, her privacy, and predominantly, her husband, Lyzel, the subject of the unabashedly mushy ”He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” from Who is Jill Scott? and the jubilant fidelity hymn ”Bedda at Home” from her newest record. Oh yeah, she also ”learned how to make a really good mojito.”

While she was away mashing mint leaves, the neo-soul ”movement”?increasingly characterized by excess ’70s nostalgia and naively affirmational sentiment?lost some momentum. Badu and Stone saw disappointing returns with their latest projects. But Maxx Myrick, a program director for soul and jazz channels on XM Satellite Radio, insists that Scott’s appeal runs deeper than any Afro-boho image. ”There’s a song on her new record [called] ‘Family Reunion, ”’ says Myrick of Beautifully Human’s final track, a buoyant, warts-and-all ode to African-American families. ”Every black person in America can relate to that story. That’s us.”

One of the few projects Scott was willing to take on during her hiatus was a four-episode character arc on UPN’s Girlfriends. She was drawn to the show’s realistic portrayal of black women in friendship and romance. In the same way, her fans — women especially — are drawn to Scott’s messages of independence and her fierce devotion to reversing the ideas that have kept black men and women at odds since slavery. ”There are a lot of strong black families out there,” she insists. ”I’ve seen them. I meet husbands and wives all the time. They seek me out — God bless ’em! — 60 years of marriage. It’s possible, but we have to do the work.”

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