“Did you see the message from Issa?” Jazmine Sullivan asks me excitedly. For all the acclaim and Grammy recognition the R&B star has accrued over the past 12 years, she still reacts to starry praise with joy and disbelief. A hopeful tweet suggesting Insecure’s Issa Rae turn Sullivan’s latest EP into a short film elicited a positive response, and later in the week, the pattern repeats with Mary J Blige. “Wait … wtf?! I’m so happy man!” Sullivan tweeted after the soul legend signals her eagerness for a guest spot.
To onlookers, though, there was little surprise about the Philadelphia native – also picked to sing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl – being treated as one of the modern greats of R&B. When Sullivan arrived on the music scene in 2008, a much-touted 21-year-old protege of Missy Elliott, her USP was familiar in the genre: a vocal force of nature, honed in church, who drew on personal experience to deliver raw soul in the lineage of Blige (with whom she toured in 2010) and Keyshia Cole.
Her first two albums, 2008’s Fearless and 2010’s Love Me Back, strongly bore this out while extending her range into disco, tango and reggae. Critical respect and 12 Grammy nominations have followed in the years since, and though household name recognition has not, several of Sullivan’s songs became R&B standards. Her 2010 single Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles) was given a new lease of life a decade on when Megan Thee Stallion used it is the foundational sample for Circles, the opening cut from the Houston rapper’s hit 2020 album Good News.
In 2011, she announced her retirement from the music industry in a series of emotional tweets, later admitting that her confidence as an artist had crumbled to the extent that she would not accept show bookings. But since her return in 2014, Sullivan has morphed into the finest songwriter and storyteller in R&B. On 2015’s underrated masterpiece, Reality Show, her focus was on sharply constructed character studies, and this month’s Heaux Tales EP further examines sex, money and the mediated image of modern Black womanhood in Sullivan’s most confident work to date. “I want to kind of get to the root of why people do certain things,” she says. “That’s more important than the outcome. As a society, we focus on the outcome, and we label people based off that, but we don’t really know the meat of the story of why people are the way they are.”
Sullivan’s move towards this journalistic mode is noteworthy in an era when biographical interpretation of pop artists’ work is disproportionately prized – witness the ferocity with which fans and critics alike scour Beyoncé and Taylor Swift’s lives for clues to their lyrics – and when soul and lived emotion have been considered inextricable in R&B songcraft. Across Heaux Tales she chronicles the perspectives of six different, disparate women – a gold-digger, a heartbreaker, an Instagram model – and ties them together with snippets of the conversations with her girlfriends that inspired them.
“For some of the situations, we would just go out to dinner, and I would put the phone on and we would talk naturally,” recalls Sullivan of her interviewing process. “For some, it was more intimate of an ask.” On Amanda’s Tale, a friend recounts how social media chipped away at her self-worth. “I asked her to go into a quiet space and record herself about that specific subject. It was very brave of her to do – it’s one thing to talk to girlfriends about situations that we go through as women, but another thing to be subject to everyone’s opinions and judgments.”
The result is a collection of psychologically acute vignettes. Sullivan’s recurring themes are the ways in which sex and beauty can be commodified to gain material wealth, and she is unflinching but compassionate when interrogating them. The narrator of Precious’s Tale/The Other Side – a figurative cousin of 2015’s Mascara, which got under the skin of why a similarly ambitious woman stuck so hard to maintaining beauty standards – dreams of a lavish lifestyle from a rented room and a dead-end job, and concludes that her body is her only viable means to make it come true. “I’m hoping these titties can get me out the city,” she croons, Sullivan simultaneously conveying hope and delusion. A song later, Amanda’s Tale/Girl Like Me flips the script to the perspective of a woman dumped for The Other Side’s narrator, scrolling through social media and judging herself unable to compete.
“I was surfing Instagram and seeing a lot of beautiful girls, and I was fascinated with their lives – and obviously, their physical appearance and what it brought for them,” Sullivan says. “Me, I’ve never experienced that kind of attention for, you know, that particular thing. So I can’t write about her enough!”
Sullivan largely absents her personal life from the narrative – though obliquely tells me that digging into her friends’ stories wound up helping her process an old toxic relationship that “had got physical” – but her keen observational eye has deep roots.
She comes from a lineage of female creators – her grandmother was a poet and church evangelist, and her mother wrote plays (“always very Bible-based and Christian-based”) – and her childhood was spent growing up in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion, a historic museum where her father gave guided tours. It was a private and restricted upbringing: Sullivan remembers only seeing other children at school, and spending much of her time at home watching Disney and making up stories to entertain herself.
“It was an interesting process we went through as kids,” she recalls. “Where we actually lived was on the third floor, pretty much all the way up in the attic – where the slaves lived. Whenever my dad was doing tours we kind of had to retreat, and we pretty much only came down to eat. And usually the people on the tours were, you know, white people. And we had to hide and retreat up to the slave quarters!”
The incipient potential collaboration between Sullivan and Issa Rae has more significance than simply being a big-name stamp of approval. Taking her tales – which she says have always been visual in her mind – to the screen is, Sullivan feels, the natural next creative step. It’s also a partnership that would make artistic sense: Sullivan and Rae are both writers who seem to actually like and root for their characters, despite those characters’ complexities and flaws. Central to Sullivan’s lens is the innate value of being human. In a world that still equates material success with moral worth, hearing her state “I deserve that life” on The Other Side – an echo of her cry of “Don’t I deserve to be privileged?” on Mascara – feels radical.
“What this project does is show you the motivation,” says Sullivan. “It gives it a human-ness, a humane-ness. We spend so much time judging people, if they don’t fit the mould that we are, that we wanted, or that we’re used to – and I don’t want us to do that any more as a culture. I want us to just let people live. And I feel like if you know why people do certain things, you probably can relate to it in a different way than you could before. Isn’t that exactly what we all deserve? To be happy and have the lives that we want?”