Above: Norah Jones strolls through Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at the 2008 Bridge School Benefit concert.
By Joel Francis
When Beyonce sang “a diva is a female version of a hustler” she probably wasn’t thinking of Norah Jones.
Jones has made her name with impeccable background music that is tasteful to a fault and straddles the line between folk and jazz. It appears she saves the more interesting facets of her personality for her side projects with the Little Willies, El Madmo, a punk one-off, and her burgeoning side career as hip hop chanteuse. Jones’ appearances with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Wyclef Jean and Q-Tip prove there may be more than a little hustler in her after all.
“Take Off Your Cool” with Andre 3000 of Outkast, from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”
Jones was a little more than a year removed from the massive success “Come Away With Me” when this number appeared. Both camps took shots from a surprised public. Andre 3000 was blasted for pandering by working with the reigning adult contemporary queen and Jones was flamed for lowering herself to the low level of hip hop. Of course, the final result proved all naysayers wrong.
Anchored by a finger-picked acoustic guitar, the gentle production wouldn’t out of place on Jones’ own album – that is if Jones’ stuffy supporters could get past Andre 3000’s greasy come-ons.
“Any Other Day” with Wyclef Jean, from “The Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant”
This song, which first appeared on the Hurricane Katrina relief charity album “Come Together Now,” has more in common with the Dave Matthews Band than the Fugees. Wyclef Jean’s acoustic guitar leads the way, but it is essentially Jones’ showcase. She affectingly croons the story of someone trapped by a storm, while Jean drops in a faux-Bob Marley patois.
A quick glance and the writing credit explains Jones’ prominence. The song is a true collaboration, with Jones and her then-boyfriend Lee Alexander sharing authorship with Jean and his producer Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis.
“Soon the New Day” with Talib Kweli, from “Ear Drum”
Even so-called “conscious rappers” aren’t above desires of the flesh. This celebration of one-night stands is draped across producer Madlib’s backdrop of smooth ’70s soul. As Talib Kweli boasts about his conquest, Jones’ voice surfaces like the first rays of dawn gently forcing their way into the bedroom through the closed shade.
Although Jones is essentially limited to one line, she makes the most of it, adding heart and emotion to Kweli’s calculated braggadocio. But don’t mistake Jones as the conscience of the story – there is no remorse from either party. She clearly enjoyed it just as much as he did, just in a different way. Despite their disparate deliveries, the two voices work naturally together – neither performer sounds of his (or her) element.
“Soon the New Day” is a stand-out tune on a great album that should have been a single.
“Life Is Better” with Q-Tip, from “The Renaissance”
This cut is essentially a jam, with Q-Tip and Jones giving props to hip hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Leaders of the New School and, of course, Tip’s close friend J. Dilla. Jones gets the song to herself for the first two minutes and she makes the most of it. It’s fun to hear her away from her natural reference points singing of hip hop songs “banging for you” against a thumping bass line and jazzy sample. Tip’s verse is a roll call of his favorite artists.
Jones’ strong performance in her most urban setting to date makes one wish she’d take similar chances on her own albums. But if she’s not willing to alienate her own audience, it’s nice to see her spreading her wings elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when she shows up on the next Snoop Dogg album.