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For a while, it seemed that Joi, despite critical acclaim and a cult following, was destined to fade into obscurity. Her 1994 debut, The Pendulum Vibe, yielded only a minor club hit, “Sunshine and the Rain.” Label problems meant that her 1997 follow-up, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, never saw the light of day. But Joi, a dynamic singer and songwriter who defies sexual and genre conventions, is the fierce lioness that lesser alley cats Jaguar Wright and Rah Digga wish they could be. And like all wildcats worth their roars, this one gets nine lives—well, at least three.

Frisky, freakish, and full of riot-grrrl attitude, The Pendulum Vibe celebrated the joys of personal freedom and explored such taboo subjects as lesbianism, masturbation, and domestic abuse. Artistically, it placed Joi ahead of the pack of prominent R&B singers of the time (SWV, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston) by sidestepping sap in favor of more vital juices; it also edged her out of mainstream urban-radio airplay. Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome has since become a sought-after bootleg on a par with Prince’s Black Album, but following its nonrelease Joi went on extended hiatus, living in Atlanta as Joi Gilliam Gipp, the wife of Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp and mother of their daughter, Keypsiia. She did get recruited by bassist, singer, and producer Raphael Saadiq to replace Dawn Robinson in his all-star, trouble-ridden trio, Lucy Pearl, but whether you’ll hear her with Lucy Pearl (rumor has it the group has completely broken up) is up in the air.

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With her third album, the titillating, oddly transcendental Star Kitty’s Revenge, Joi is now loudly announcing that she’s back. And domestication and motherhood haven’t done anything to squelch her inner freak. In fact, to judge from songs such as “Crave,” “Lick,” and her mouthwatering remake of Bootsy Collins’ “Munchies for Your Love,” she’s gotten even freakier. Gathering up many of Gipp’s Dungeon Family crew and Saadiq, among others, Joi concocts

a swampy funk straight outta Stankonia.

Lyrically and vocally, Joi often sounds as if she’d been raised by the Brides of Funkenstein, especially on the uplifting “It’s Your Life,” in which she purrs: “People, don’t conform to every rule/’Cause individuality is cool/You just know when and where to cross the line/Now, shake yo’ ass and gon’ and free yo’ mind!” in front of a molasses-thick chorus that sounds like the entire P-Funk mob. She dishes out black sci-fi imagery on Rufus & Chaka Khan’s aggressive rocker “I’m a Woman,” roaring: “I am a species born to die/Understanding this I hardly try/Growing up and out I’ll marry you/I’ll bear your kids and be your momma to.”

More often, Joi exhibits an almost vampiric hunger for fleshly delights. In the steamy “Crave,” she meows: “Lookin’ kinda good in your birthday suit/Like, when you lick your lips, grab your dick/goddamn I love that shit.” In “Lick,” she celebrates the joys of cunnilingus, luring her lover to explore her “inner walls of pleasure” and then promising to return the favor. She teases a potential lover with the luscious line “Excuse me if I’m staring at your mouth” on the musky funk romp “What If I Kissed You Right Now?”—which also prominently features Saadiq’s rubbery bass line stretching like taffy and singeing like carpet on skin. She ain’t too proud to beg, either, as evident from the scintillating lead single, “Missing You,” her fervid ode to sexual frustration: She croons passionately about missing her cheatin’ lover atop an Al Green-like groove, then sneaks in the self-abasing lines “Listening to the silence I can hear you say/’Baby, please don’t give my pussy away’/I’ll keep my legs together ’cause you do it better/Better than those other girls and boys, anyway.”

Brazen sexuality is everywhere in today’s pop music, of course. On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Joi as nothing more than another femme fatale playing into men’s fantasies. But what makes Star Kitty’s Revenge both inescapably engaging and kind of scary is the emotional poignancy of Joi’s voice. She enlivens her songs with the conviction of a gospel singer wailing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and when she explores the darker realms of lust, her impassioned cries make you shiver. On the eerie “17” of Snow,” she hints at the scuzzy side of ghetto fabulousness with the enigmatic verses: “There were 17″ of snow/Oooo, I wanna go/But this time just might be my last.” The lyrics don’t reveal too much, but given Joi’s fiery, testimonial cries, especially after she moans the follow-up lines—”It was there and ready to go/Oooo, it had a glow/But this one did not have the same shine”—it appears that the song is a bittersweet love letter to cocaine.

Other spooky elements creep up on “Techno Pimp” and “Nicole”—two contrasting perspectives on pimp culture. If “Techno Pimp,” with its revved-up robotic beats and kitty-cat chorus, can be written off as pretty much another glamorization of prostitution, the grimy “Nicole” lets you in on the real deal. Against a stark backdrop of crispy beats, somber bass, and sawing keyboard rhythms, Joi weaves a cautionary tale about a 17-year-old who runs away from her abusive father, only to be found dead after a trick shoots her in the head. Joi fills the lyrics with so much sizzling intensity as to suggest that she could very well have been a Nicole herself had she not pursued a career in music.

The most heart-rending song, however, involves neither lust nor murder but the longing for an absent daddy. Among the album’s three dedications is one to “my father whose mission will be completed through me.” And the misty “Jefferson St. Joe” refers to him: Joe Gilliam Jr., one of the NFL’s first black starting quarterbacks. He left the family when Joi was only 5, descending into decadence via fast women and drugs; he eventually died of a cocaine-induced heart attack. In front of sparse, cardiac beats and gloomy keyboard washes, Joi sings: “Funny how losing you/Was the best and worst thing that could happen to me” and manages to convey resolution with “I never, ever hated you even though/You know you were wrong.” It’s in such sobering moments—in “Jefferson St. Joe,” “Nicole,” and “17” of Snow”—when Joi’s ferocious claws dig deepest under the skin.

Star Kitty’s Revenge’s rawness and conviction re-align Joi with R&B risk-takers the Neptunes, OutKast, Macy Gray, and Cee-Lo—all of whom have been influenced by her and gone on to gain much greater commercial success. And now that mainstream R&B has grown accustomed to the likes of OutKast and Gray, it may be ready for Joi’s feline grace. CP