Favorite Track: Price Tags (feat. Anderson .Paak) Least Favorite Track: The Other Side
One of the most important weapons in the arsenal of any musician is consistency; effectively devoting all of yourself to each and every project that you release. R&B/gospel singer Jazmine Sullivan has struggled with this. Given her long list of accomplishments early in her career, such as singing backup for Stevie Wonder and songwriting for Jennifer Hudson, her 2008 release Fearless was much anticipated by fans. This album really shows Sullivan at her best musically and lyrically, as she soothes your self-consciousness with the album's collection of songs and guides it with her sensual, dynamic voice. Sadly, her next two albums, Love Me Back and Reality Show, served as large decreases in quality. They explored many of the same themes and concepts as Fearless, but felt underdeveloped and unauthentic as a whole. The way Sullivan progressively experimented with her voice with each album wasn’t really praised like it should have been, as her two latest LP’s added too many complex ideas and ultimately distracted from her astonishing, developed voice. It wasn’t until she released her fourth album Heaux Tales that she picked up where she started, as she conveys ambition and diffidence on women’s sex and love.
Multi-genre artists, such as the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, and Dirty Heads to name a few, have revolutionized music, proving that a musical genre is only a construct set by the music industry. Fans have generally responded positively to artists who play around with a multitude of different styles; however, it didn’t work out too well for Jazmine Sullivan. As shown by her three projects, she has transitioned between a variety of genres, with her Fearless debut establishing her R&B/soul prowess and then switching around pop, reggae, and disco as she progressed with Love Me Back and Reality Show. While she still tackles the same themes of love and sex in each style, this diversity in genre ultimately does nothing for her but distract from each album’s musicianship and songwriting. At some points we even hear influence from each style of music colliding together and creating unnecessary filler tracks that does nothing for the album's central messages, like “Stanley” from Reality Show and “Stuttering” from Love Me Back. The main reason for this jumble of juxtaposing genres is Sullivan’s experimentation with her voice. As she has grown, her voice has reached astronomical levels of excellence, and the problem was trying to match that elegance and maturity with instrumentals that are equally complex and sophisticated. In summation, her voice kept these past albums from being as amazing as Fearless was, not because of its actual timbre or tonality, but because it pushed the rest of the album to try to match its greatness, producing projects that were wildly underdeveloped and convoluted.
The appeal of Heaux Tales lies in its minimalistic instrumental approach. Many of the reasons her previous albums weren’t as memorable as they should have been don’t appear on this album, as the instrumentals are much more relaxed, leave more space, and allow Sullivan’s voice to become the centerpiece. For example, the closing track “Girl Like Me (feat. H.E.R.)” is stripped down to a sole guitar, which compared to many of her other songs, may sound lazy and bland. However, this establishes a spacious soundscape for these two riff queens to glide over. During the last bridge is where we hear the potential that space gives these two, when Sullivan belts “‘Cause y’all n***** be takin’ us there/’Cause you don’t want us no more” and H.E.R. harmonizes a falsetto “Ooh-Ooh, Ooh-Ooh”’ beneath her. This not only takes their musicality to another level, but also allows the central message of the piece to be delivered clearly. Another example is on “Lost One” which again uses stand alone guitars, but this time, in a lo-fi, suppressed tone. Again, Sullivan’s voice is the main focus, bringing all the instrumentalism we need. Her exploration in regret and toxic love didn’t need to be tempered or supported by other unnecessary instruments or sounds; instead, her intimate voice is the only tool needed to convey that emotion to her audience. Heaux Tales doesn’t continue in the outlandish direction that her last two albums were on, and has grounded Jazmine Sullivan back to a place of authenticity and mastery.
From a thematic stance, Sullivan’s exploration of women’s sex and love is the real highlight on Heaux Tales. She touches on many aspects related to intercourse and affection, with one of the main ones being the electrifying feeling sex can bring. That thrill is really introduced during the interlude “Ari’s Tale,” where we hear R&B singer-songwriter Ari Lennox personify sex as “speaking life,” “out of this world,” and how she was “literally willing to ruin” her career because of it. On the track “On It,” you can really feel the intimacy and sexual energy in her voice as she sings about the pleasure that a “Lil’ bowlegged hood n**** with the nine inch” brings to the bedroom. Moreover, adding Ari Lennox to it brings a whole nother form of sensuality to the lyrics, almost as if the two of them are teasing you; enticing you to feel nothing but a craving for sex and pleasure. Jazmine Sullivan’s portrayal of sex as this beautiful and powerful connecting action that two people share gives Heaux Tales a touch of sensitivity and tenderness.
Jazmine Sullivan also examines sexual power as a contradiction to all the positive things it may bring. On the interlude “Amanda’s Tale,” her friend of 20 years, Amanda Henderson, explains how lusting for power through sex leaves her feeling insecure. She recognizes how sex can be a superpower as well as a deppressive activity, stating how “just me alone and who I am is not enough.” The grooviest track “Price Tags (feat. Anderson .Paak)” sees Sullivan affirming that sex has a financial tie to it, and how “money keeps the pussy wet.” This is an instant when empowerment through sex becomes borderline unhealthy, dancing dangerously between the phrases gold-digger and prostitute. The lyricism and flow that Anderson brings closes the song out nicely, rapping from the perspective of the man being taken advantage of with lines like “She don’t wanna work, she takin’ the week off/Shit, I’m startin’ to think, you don’t even have a job” and “You don’t want the chips if it got the guac missin’/You only want the Benz if it’s AMG-kitted.”. Finally, Heaux Tales closing track “Girl Like Me (feat. H.E.R.)” focuses on “Fashion Nova dressed hoes” who steal their sexual partners away, which again ties into the pain and toxicity that sex can bring. Ultimately, Jazmine Sullivan’s description of hoe-ing went from one of pride and power to one of remorse. In terms of music today, not enough female artists focus on the potential negative aspects of female sexuality, and for Sullivan to bring that up is a testimony to her acute understanding of these complicated and multi-faceted issues.
Heaux Tales was definitely a much needed step in Jazmine Sullivan’s career. This album is not only impressive due to its attention to detail and desire to not overcompensate musically, but it’s also some of the best songwriting we have seen from Sullivan in a long time. Voicing her sexual appetites has always been her bread and butter, but doing it to the level of maturity and virtuosity that she does on this album is a musical breakthrough for her. Jazmine Sullivan’s knowledge of the conflicting judgements and desires that live inside her speaks to her women audience as well as men who want to understand a woman’s position regarding sex and love. Producing music to this degree of authenticity and musicality is gratifying and rewarding, and it seems as though Jazmine Sullivan will continue on this path to keep herself as prominent as she was in the late 2000’s.