‘Love Jones’: The Soundtrack of the Neo-Soul Generation

[caption id="attachment_13427" align="aligncenter" width="307"]Love Jones movie poster Love Jones movie poster[/caption]

This guest post by Inda Lauryn appears as part of our theme week on Movie Soundtracks.

The summer of 2000. I share my extensive music collection with my friends. In this collection: a three-year-old soundtrack to a film I never saw in the theaters but caught on video in the dorm on a night that turned into a communal viewing. I and my summer buddies listen to this soundtrack so much that we even know the background noise to a spoken word poetry performance taken directly from the film, so when we watch the film on a bus trip to an amusement park, we not only recite the poem, but also the audience reactions. We have a great time and I have a personal memory associated with one of the best film soundtracks of the late 90s.

That film: Love Jones. The 1997 film has the distinction of providing the neo-soul generation with its soundtrack. Juxtaposing Lauryn Hill and Maxwell with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the combination of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane practically captures the essence of the burgeoning “neo-soul movement” during the mid-1990s. As the unofficial neo-soul soundtrack, Love Jones also shares an honor with the classic Super Fly soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield: many who know the film and the soundtrack agree that the soundtrack is decidedly superior to the film. (A snippet of Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” even appears in the film set in his hometown of Chicago.) However, seeing the film again with nearly 20 years between its release and the present day gives me more appreciation for the film, what it captured during its time, and the soundtrack.

Soundtracks to Black-cast films have always been as important as the films themselves and often attracted some of the most popular acts of the day, much like the soundtracks for Jason’s Lyric, Panther, Waiting to Exhale, and The Best Man. In some cases, they are extensions of the story on film, letting the audience relive a moment in which the song plays a crucial part. In some ways, they are a form of fan fiction with tracks not found in the film still somehow becoming relevant to the story being told. Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless” playing over the opening montage of black-and-white photos depicting Black life in Chicago brings as much nostalgia to the listener as it does to Nia Long’s Nina Mosley as she laments the end of her engagement. It represents the state of Nina’s relationship with ex-fiance Marvin (portrayed by Khalil Kain) as well as her role as a photographer. The dialogue that introduces Larenz Tate’s Darius Lovehall and his friends (two of whom are portrayed by Bill Bellamy and Isaiah Washington) definitely draws its inspiration from the burgeoning spoken word scene that colored the Black coffeehouse scene before it was co-opted by the mainstream.

[caption id="attachment_13431" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Date Nina and Darius on a date in Love Jones[/caption]

 

Mellow and smooth, the Love Jones soundtrack creates that Black boho ambiance that permeated the flawed but still believable and enjoyable film. As a Black college student at an HBCU, seeing Black artists onscreen making a living as artists held a certain appeal even though my life was taking a drastically different trajectory at the time. But for me, the depiction of that lifestyle remains the most romantic aspect of it. The images of Nina and Darius heading off on their first date on his motorcycle (or scooter) is definitely a romantic image reminiscent of films such as Roman Holiday-only I’m seeing it with people who look like me. I’m seeing a Black woman wooed, looked at as if she could launch 1,000 ships and start a war between nations. I’m seeing a Black woman change a man’s life with the power of her existence.

Of course, in the romance genre, miscommunication drives the film, but it becomes irritating quite quickly. Seriously, the entire premise of the film relies on the understanding that Nina and Darius deny they are in a relationship, but rather they’re just kicking it. Interestingly, this uncertainty that things will work out in the end is actually one of the things I appreciate most in this film now that I’m in my mid-30s. But at least while watching Nina and Darius fumble around like teenagers for an hour and a half when I was in my early 20s, I got a depiction of a lifestyle few would achieve and a soundtrack that made it all worthwhile.

Furthermore, I saw Nina and Darius bond over music. Darius’ first meeting with Nina at The Sanctuary prompts him to rename his poem in honor of his newfound pursuit of the beautiful Nina. They meet again when Nina decides she needs an Isley Brothers CD and Darius tips her to a Charlie Parker track she’s never heard before. They go to a reggae club, The Wild Hair, on their first date, growing closer. The extradiegetic music works just as well. How many of us immediately think of the beautifully shot sex scene when we hear Maxwell’s “Sumthin Sumthin (Mellow Smooth)”? The jazz underscoring many scenes adds to the neo-soul, spoken word vibe permeating the film. The jazz score does more than create the background music all films use. It indicates sophistication, a film made for grown folks in an era when many Black films focused on coming of age or the second coming of Blaxploitation films.

[caption id="attachment_13432" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Nina takes photos in Love Jones Nina takes photos in Love Jones[/caption]

 

In fact, the very essence of neo-soul comes together quite nicely in one collection. Lauryn Hill’s “The Sweetest Thing” gave us all that romance we wanted in our 20s: feeling the sensation of the kiss upon the collarbone and fingertips on the small of the back. Hill and the others in the neo-soul bracket gave us most of our music memories in our 20s. We were between enjoying our parents’ music that music such as Hill’s harkened back to and we were outgrowing the pop-radio oriented R&B of our adolescence that did not quite grow up when we did. Many of us first heard Duke Ellington’s and John Coltrane’s timeless duet “In a Sentimental Mood” on The Cosby Show, but the film brought it back to us in a new context, the rekindling of a romance between two young adults when Nina decides sex would cheapen a date that had been so perfect. (She was wrong by the way.) Cassandra Wilson’s incredible vocals on “You Move Me” evokes memories for the characters of what they lost and what they could have had if only they tried harder to make it work. Out of context for those of us revisiting the soundtrack, the sensuality of the track provides a perfect backdrop for one of those evenings.

Like many soundtracks of the time, Love Jones also includes songs not used in the film, usually to showcase new talent or to add more to the mood of the film. Trina Broussard puts a new spin on an old R&B staple and amazingly does not muck it up considering she covers a Minnie Riperton classic, “Inside My Love.” Admittedly, I heard her version before Riperton’s, but her version does the lyrics justice. The 20-somethings even got a taste of our adolescence with the Xscape cover of “In the Rain,” both because many of us first heard Keith Sweat’s version in our youth rather than The Dramatics and also because we grew up with Xscape (or Xscape grew up with us). While not used in the film, the song reminds us of the ways the rain itself added to the film at key moments, making Chicago an essential part of the film’s overall charm. In Chicago, we see Darius futilely running after the train to tell Nina goodbye as she heads for New York to pursue a career opportunity. In Chicago, we see Black communities going through their trials and tribulations in love and life.

Of course, the overarching theme of the Love Jones soundtrack is romance. But it is an adult romance differing from the lyrics we often heard in hook-up, club culture songs that still bang today. To borrow from George Michael’s assessment of his hit song “I Want Your Sex,” “It’s not about fucking. It’s about fucking within a relationship.” This is what Amel Laurieux sings about in Groove Theory’s smooth “Never Enough.” This is what Meshell Ndegeocello gets at with that below the belt bass line in “Rush Over” with Marcus Miller. It’s definitely what Cassandra Wilson croons about in her orgasmically magical “You Move Me.”

[caption id="attachment_13433" align="aligncenter" width="348"]A shirtless Darius in Love Jones A shirtless Darius in Love Jones[/caption]

Love Jones does more than captures a moment in time in the late 90s. It creates the point when neo-soul established itself as the music of all of us with artistic inclinations, those of us leaving fantasies of teenage love affairs behind for a more realistic image of making a relationship work. And, yes, for some of us it brought about a sexual awakening that helped us accept that sex could exist outside a relationship if it’s truly wanted that way. Of course, in the trajectory of a romance film, the relationship has to prevail. But there’s no judgment of Nina and Darius when they both tell themselves the other is just a temporary situation.

For me, the Love Jones soundtrack represents a trip back to my college days in New Orleans as much as it does a time when Black-cast films showed me images of my aspirations as well as an escape. It was my coming of age into adulthood and that awkward territory called relationships. It was the time when The Brand New Heavies began to speak to me more than Boyz II Men and other acts with hit machines behind them. The soundtrack represented the moment I entered the grown folks club.


Inda Lauryn has been previously published in Interfictions, Afropunk and Blackberry, A Magazine. She is currently working on a few fiction projects and blogs about women in music at cornerstorepress.wordpress.com.