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Soul sistah alternatives

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For urban music, the new millennium brought with it a new level of freedom in music. The sub-genre dubbed alternative or neo-soul broke the confines of its usual bohemian fan base and seeped into mainstream America. And, surprise, people got it. Everyone, that is, except some radio stations whose claim to fame is that they played absolutely no part in breaking critically and commercially acclaimed acts like Macy Gray and Jill Scott, just two members of the mostly female alt-urban class of Y2K.

Gray, whose album On How Life Is came out in 1999, emerged this year as an unlikely superstar, brandishing a bodacious bush, donning gear that looked like it came straight from Junkman's Daughter and delivering vocals that were at once giddy and intriguing. Gray sold three million albums, thanks to singles like "Do Something" (a take on OutKast's 1994 "Git Up, Git Out") and the monumental "I Try."

Like Gray, Philadelphia native Jill Scott came with her own style -- an intoxicating concoction of soul, jazz and poetry (as in Gil Scott Heron and Nikki Giovanni). Her brash single, "Getting' in the Way," the weakest and most street-worthy of the album's tracks, was cool if you dig that sort of thing, but it's likely that Scott's gold status is due to the word-of-mouth praise by those who heard Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. I in its entirety.

Also deserving a place on the alt-urban honor roll is former Brownstone singer Kina, though she failed to follow Gray and Scott into the mainstream despite critical adoration and a killer single, "Girl From the Gutter." Kina's self-named album, an uninhibited amalgam of rock, soul and funk, is certainly worthy of wider attention. Pru, another single-named soul-styled vocalist, emerging late in the year and, though she's a lot tamer than the others, she'll likely make a splash that spills over into 2001.

All these sistahs, unique in their own right, served as excellent warm-ups for more established innovators, with late-in-the-year releases by Erykah Badu (Mama's Gun) and longstanding favorite Sade, whose album Lovers Rock (her first since 1992's Lover's Deluxe), threw her right back to the top of the charts after her lengthy absence.

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