As Jazmine Sullivan’s first album in six years, Heaux Tales puts her talents on display and successfully ignores the standard R&B industry traps.
Jazmine Sullivan has built a rather remarkable career for herself over the last decade, the sort that few contemporary pop artists are allowed the time to properly nurture. This is, in part, because she was able to step away from the industry for a time, for a nearly four-year hiatus that concluded with the release of 2015’s Reality Show. Sullivan’s time outside the music industry aligns with any number of massive shifts, both all-encompassing (dominance of streaming) and specific to R&B (aesthetic trends), yet the vocalist/songwriter hasn’t had to drastically alter her vision. This is an artist who can confidently fill in the space between two different eras of R&B (she made significant contributions to both Frank Ocean’s Endless and Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman), specializing in a bombastic, vocal-forward style, backed up by hip-hop production both soulful and trap oriented. Sullivan’s aesthetic preferences undoubtedly favor the genre’s recent past, when artists like Blige dominated, but her own music is a legitimate contemporizing of that sound (one of her first big singles was built around a prominent sample of “Veridis Quo,” after all) as opposed to shallow reenactment.
In the six years since Reality Show, Sullivan had kept busy — working on other artists’ projects — but had avoided putting out a full project exclusively under her name, until this year. Heaux Tales stands as an exciting reemergence, then: 32 minutes (a substantial EP?) with a rigid formal conceit, in that they’re meant to be experienced as a whole. Based around spoken-word testimonies and musings from Sullivan’s friends and mother, the songs on Heaux Tales translate these anecdotes into massive ballads, the singer’s huge vocals confronting us with the conflicts, pleasures, and contradictions involved in a woman’s journey to articulate, and to maintain agency over, her sexuality. Sullivan primarily works from a heterosexual perspective (though one of these tales accounts for a lesbian friend’s brush with infidelity), each song wrestling with the tension between sexual and financial power dynamics, searching for the line between transaction and romance. The songs can at times contradict each other in their messaging: Anderson .Paak’s guest verse on “Price Tags” finds him cheekily dismissing a paramour he’s determined to be a gold digger. When taken as a whole, however, the contradictions can be savvy and compellingly human frictions, ones that reject a monolithic view of womanhood. Alas, one fears that a project so dependent on its full form may translate oddly in the streaming era (the aforementioned “Price Tags” plays as retrograde and corny on its own). But the lack of consideration for new industry rules makes Heaux Tales a stand-out, not a holdover.
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2021 | Part 1.