May 16, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Jazmine Sullivan finds her voice after a six-year absence

In mid-September as COVID-19’s shutdown of live music hit the six-month mark — and as the wait for a new album by Jazmine Sullivan approached six years — hungry R&B fans took to social media for a crack at the #insecurechallenge.

The viral undertaking had participants doing their best to nail an intricate vocal run from Sullivan’s 2017 single “Insecure” in which the soul singer with a gospel background glides down the scale with seemingly effortless precision. Results ran the gamut from oh-that’s-cute to you-almost-had-it, but nobody could quite master the churchy riff. Eventually, Sullivan herself chimed in, posting a how-to video on Instagram that despite her good-faith effort only made the run sound more difficult.

Four months later, Sullivan, 33, laughs when asked how gratified she is by all the admiration for her signature vocal acrobatics. “It’s not that big of a deal,” she replies in a video call from her home near Philadelphia. “To be honest, when I do runs, it’s by accident — it’s a natural habit because I’ve been doing it for so long.” Sometimes, she says, she wonders if she oversings.

“If the run is super-duper-amazing, I’ll recognize that. But when people respond to my writing, to the emotion in my music, that means way more to me.”

The storytelling is the thing on Sullivan’s gripping new album, “Heaux Tales.” A set of songs connected by intimate spoken-word testimonials from some of Sullivan’s friends and family members, the project ponders the varied, occasionally contradictory ways that desire manifests in women’s lives — specifically, the lives of Black women making their voices heard after ages of neglect and subjugation.

“Heaux Tales” centers complicated characters who have knowingly made bad decisions in pursuit of sexual pleasure, who’ve struggled to live up to unrealistic beauty standards, who’ve discovered that marriage is no refuge from a gender-based power dynamic. (To be sure, the singing — gritty, desperate, yet never out of control — is magnificent too.)

Sullivan’s long-anticipated follow-up to 2015’s “Reality Show,” which earned three Grammy nominations, “Heaux Tales” is only the fourth LP since 2008 from an artist famous for taking her time even as streaming has greatly accelerated the music industry’s pace. The album also arrives in the midst of what feels like a Jazmine Sullivan moment: Late last year, Megan Thee Stallion prominently sampled Sullivan’s decade-old “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles)” for a track on her hit debut, while younger R&B stars such as Summer Walker and Ella Mai have broken out with music that shows the clear if quiet influence of her atmospheric sound and her piercing lyricism.

Two more of Sullivan’s inheritors turn up for duets on “Heaux Tales”: H.E.R. in “Girl Like Me,” a guitar-driven number in which Sullivan sings about creating a Tinder profile after being dumped, and Ari Lennox in “On It,” a delightfully frank slow jam demanding physical satisfaction. (Lennox also delivers the album’s most memorable testimonial, describing the effect of sex so good it “spoke life into me — invigoration, blessings, soul.”)

H.E.R., who recently joined Sullivan for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert that drew more than a million views in its first three days on YouTube, says “Heaux Tales” argues that “there is no mold of what a woman should be, which is something that’s not preached on enough.”

“Jazmine’s music is so honest, so obviously from a real place,” H.E.R. adds. “And there’s so many layers to her singing — the tone and the execution, yes, but also the pain.”

Sullivan says the album is “about understanding that we all have a story, and that story is important, and it’s OK for you to tell it exactly the way it is.” The Philly native who grew up singing in church has on a cream-colored sweater and a matching leather newsboy cap like the one Mary J. Blige wears on the cover of “My Life”; she’s sitting in the sunlight pouring through a living-room window, and she glances offscreen to her left when she mentions her boyfriend of several years, Dave Watson, a musician and producer with whom she recorded the heartbroken “Lost One,” about a woman taking the blame for blowing up a relationship.

“You don’t have to make up a way to present yourself,” she continues. “Whatever valleys and dips that you’ve gone through in life, you deserve to have grace.” Indeed, what gives “Heaux Tales” much of its power is the empathy in Sullivan’s songs; she’s never judging her characters, even when they behave dubiously.

It’s an artistic outlook that makes it easy to see why Sullivan has a mega-fan in Issa Rae, who commissioned “Insecure” for the soundtrack of her similarly nuanced HBO series of the same name and who has a pinned tweet at the top of her account that reads, “I am so grateful for Jazmine Sullivan.”

Last week, Sullivan wrote on Twitter that she would love to make a “Heaux Tales” short film with Rae, to which the actor and director replied, “Jazmine. Say the f— less” — winking indication, perhaps, that such a project is already underway.

Given the album’s thematic scope, it’s surprising to learn that “Heaux Tales” began as something of a stopgap. Sullivan, who had receded from public view following her 2010 album “Love Me Back” — “I was in a really, really bad relationship that had gotten physical, and it just made everything not fun to do,” she says now — was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to duplicate the success of “Reality Show,” which had effectively reestablished her as a major R&B talent.

“I was nervous to come back again, and I didn’t know what I wanted this album to sound like,” says Sullivan, whose early hit “Bust Your Windows” had a distinctly retro flavor. What’s more, her mother — a former backup singer who had long managed her daughter’s career — was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2019. Executives at Sullivan’s label suggested she get the ball rolling by recording an EP that eventually grew into the more ambitious “Heaux Tales,” which consciously seeks to reflect the experiences of a historically marginalized audience.

Sullivan wrote the album’s songs first, then solicited spoken confessions from women she knew could relate to the subject matter. “With some of them, we had dinner or drinks and were just talking like we normally talk,” she says. “Some of them, I asked them about a certain thing and told them to record a voice memo: ‘Go to a secret place and let it loose.’

“It’s a big ask, because it’s one thing to tell your friends how you feel, but it’s another thing to put your business out there and have that be subject to how people think about you,” she says. “But I felt like people almost wanted to purge. Give someone an opportunity, and depending on what space they’re in, they’ll go there.” In the rowdy “Donna’s Tale,” a group of her mom’s friends (including Sullivan’s godmother) discusses how a married woman might indulge her husband in the bedroom to get what she wants the next day.

Sullivan dropped “Lost One” in August as the album’s lead single, which she says scared her; with just voice and guitar, it’s the sparest, most vulnerable song she’s ever released. “It actually had a beat to it originally, but I stripped it all the way because I wanted it to sound as raw as possible,” she says. “Even the guitar is a little out of tune because the emotionis what I wanted to capture vocally.” The ballad landed on numerous critics’ lists of the best songs of 2020.

Asked if she picks up traces of what she does in stuff by her younger peers, Sullivan says she doesn’t listen to much current music — or much older music, for that matter.

“It’s kind of quiet in here!” she says, laughing. The new artists she does hear, like H.E.R. and Walker, she’s been turned onto by her more attentive boyfriend. But she seems to know that the culture is smiling on her right now — and that she would be wise to capitalize on the attention.

With her mother having received her final round of chemotherapy just the other day — “She’s back to cussing me out,” the singer says happily — Sullivan is already focusing on her next album, which she promises won’t take as long as her last few did.

“What I need to figure out is how I’m gonna do it,” she says — either soliciting tracks from various producers or gathering the members of her live band to “vibe out and see what happens.”

COVID might make that difficult, she admits. “But I think I want to do it that way,” she adds. “It’s something I’ve never done.”