Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘Heaux Tales’: Album Review

In the early 2000s, religious music experienced a moment of mainstream success. Mary Mary’s debut album Thankful went platinum, and for a time, contemporary gospel was a pop culture touchpoint. The crossover appeal was obvious. R&B’s ebullient production grafted seamlessly onto gospel’s enduring commitment to raw talent. Its vocal tropes remain a tool of modern popular music, a means of transposing the divine onto worldly concerns. R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan, who came up singing in Philadelphia choirs, handles the desires of the flesh with godly reverence. Take the single “On It,” from her new EP Heaux Tales, Sullivan’s first release in five-years. The song features Ari Lennox and its chorus is a longing ode to good sex, one that elevates carnal desire to the heavens. Throughout Heaux Tales, Sullivan adds more nuance to common stories of romance, shifting the narrative lens to offer more perspectives on the messy business of love, sex, and everything in between. In the process, she gives voice to stories that don’t always get heard. The title is itself a reclamation, an insult recast as an honorific. Your Heauxness.

Sullivan is of course familiar with impassioned love songs. One of her most recognizable hits, 2008’s “Bust Your Windows,” remains a timeless revenge fantasy. “Dumb,” from her 2015 album Reality Show, aside from having one of the most brilliant music videos ever filmed, takes the pain of infidelity and makes it visceral. With Heaux Tales, we’re made privy to a new prism of perspectives. The EP is constructed around spoken word vignettes from women whose stories aren’t clean cut visions of traditional romance. Album opener “Bodies,” finds our narrator in a moment of self-reflection: “You don’t know who you went home with, again” Sullivan sings. Except, the way she sings it, with a rhapsodic full timbre, the experience of sleeping around seems particularly spiritual.

Sullivan’s stunning vocal range is well-documented. She was a contestant on Showtime at the Apollo at the age of 11, singing better than most adults. And she’s particularly gifted at modulating her voice. Heaux Tales finds the singer at her most dexterous. On “Pick Up Your Feelings,” she delivers buoyant and uptempo affirmations, “Look at my jeans, I’m too thick / I ain’t got the room for extra baggage,” before switching gracefully into the song’s mighty chorus. It’s told from the perspective of The Other Woman, except she’s breaking it off, affirming her own value. On the H.E.R. – assisted “Girl Like Me,” a forlorn guitar riff guides Sullivan’s voice between soulful swoons and country ballad twangs. She cooly ponders a painful rejection, singing: “I ain’t wanna be / But you gon’ make a hoe out of me.”

As a songwriter, Sullivan is known to confront thorny emotions with open-faced compassion. Most of her songs draw on personal experience, and the stories on Heaux Tales arrive courtesy of women in the 33-year-old singer’s life. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the interludes on the record were inspired by real conversations. In the case of “Donna’s Tale,” which sets up the Anderson .Paak-assisted “Pricetags,” a discussion between a relative of Sullivan’s godmother named Donna Anderson and the women of Sullivan’s family. A sermon of sorts, the speech is backed by an ecstatic church organ. “Even if you’re married. You have tricked in your fuckin’ marriage,” Anderson declares. “You have sex because you know your husband is gonna give you what the fuck you want the next day.” Even the most conservative in the congregation might be inclined to listen.

Sullivan infamously went on a similar five-year hiatus between her sophomore album, 2010’s Love Me Back, and 2015’s Reality Show. That it took five years for Heaux Tales to come into fruition feels right. Though brief, with a runtime of just over 30-minutes, the EP shows Sullivan crafting a complete constellation of love and loss. The segue from the emotionally raw interlude “Rashida’s Tale” into the standout song “Lost One” carries in it a world of lived experience. Released as the first single on the album, the track guides us through the flip side of an affair. Our narrator is living in the aftermath of a mistake. “Just don’t have too much fun without me,” she sings, resigned to their relationship’s fate, “please don’t forget about me.” It’s clear that the women in Sullivan’s songs have hearts that hurt, on Heaux Tales she shows us how to be patient with pain.

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