JAGUAR WRIGHT with DIVINE BROWN and J-LIVE as part of the Toronto Urban Music Festival at the CNE (Exhibition Place), Saturday (September 3), 4-10:30 pm. $10. 905-799-1630 ext 28, www.tumf.net. Rating: NNNNN
Despite her strong connections with the Roots (and after that unforgettable cameo on his unplugged Heart Of The City, surely Def Jam prez Jay-Z considers her family), on her new album, awkwardly titled Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul, Jaguar Wright didn't get by with the help of any of her old friends.
"Unfortunately, when you're surrounded by that much greatness, your greatness is dimmed," she says over the phone from her house in Philadelphia, fresh from Miami. "Working with all of the people has been one of the greatest honours and greatest pleasures of my life, but if you want people to take your work seriously and take you seriously and give you the credit that you damn well deserve, you have to do it on your own."
On a scale from one to 10 on the integrity meter, Jaguar's clocking in at about 49. Doing it on her own also means doing it without the help of her body parts. Recently, Wright wrote an explosive editorial for Billboard about R&B imagery and the "buy one, get one free" mentality prevalent in R&B among the Ciaras and the Rihannas of the scene: buy my CD, get to see my ass.
After dropping her first album, Denials Delusions And Decisions, on MCA, she's now going the independent route on Artemis (she's labelmates with Better than Ezra), touring and working that robust and emotive gospel-trained voice. She's also spent the last eight years fighting off pressures to sex up her image.
"I'm not doin' it. I'm got gonna conform," she insists. "Honestly, if I was one of these sexy, sexed-up and sexed-out girls, I probably would have already sold millions of records. With my talent and selling my soul combined, I'm sure I could. But I'm not gonna sell my soul. I'm not selling my body, I'm selling my gift."
That gift's been repackaged - which explains her album title. Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul is her rejection of the term "neo-soul," which was adopted as a marketing tool in the 90s to categorize the more "organic" R&B artists, like Jaguar. What's funny is that neo-soul is actually just soul.
"I sing from my soul. It's soul music. It's not new. The word 'neo' means new. There's nothing new about what I do. What I do is what's been done for decades. For generations."
It's like when a chocolate bar changes its packaging to try to snag new consumers.
"That's exactly what I was gonna say," she exclaims. "Reese's has had the same fucking wrapper on that shit for years. Same orange wrapper with the brown and yellow writing, and it hasn't changed, and the shit still sells off the shelf.
"It ain't broke. Why you trying to fix it?"