Deeper Motivations: Jazmine Sullivan Interviewed

Deeper Motivations: Jazmine Sullivan Interviewed

R&B queen on her stellar return, and learning to be comfortable in your own skin...

A collective burst of elation echoed many dwellings of the internet this past August, when Jazmine Sullivan arose from her elusive cocoon to unearth the solemn and understated ballad ‘Lost One’.

Further salivating already wet appetites, the arrival of ‘Pick Up Your Feelings’ would follow accordingly. The fierce and cutting number channelling Jazmine’s inner Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, urgently exemplified why her presence had been greatly missed. But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. And for fans of the Philadelphia native, this statement could not ring any truer.

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‘Heaux Tales’, Jazmine’s first full-length project in six years marked the grand return of one of contemporary R&B’s most treasured and beloved voices. A 14-track conceptual opus. Merging the essence of old school soul with the sexual politics of the modern millennial. Sharply evoking the frank and comedic spirit of unsung divas, Millie Jackson and Betty Wright.

The heavily anticipated follow-up to 2015’s ‘Reality Show’ was initially proposed by her label as a way satisfy her fans, as she figures out the direction of her next studio album. “We were trying to think where we would go for the album. I really didn't know what I wanted to do or how I wanted it to sound yet. So, they suggested doing something that would kind of take the pressure off”.

With the anxiety that comes with starting a new body of work eased, Jazmine was able to approach the writing of the record with a sense of theatricality and mischief. Characteristics that have in small does shown up in Jazmine’s back catalogue. Deep cuts such as ‘Call Me Guilty’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Famous’, ‘Brand New’ and ‘Stanley’ are examples of how since her 2008 debut ‘Fearless’, Jazmine has approached many of her records with the sparkle and flair of a character actress.

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The script and source material for her to interpret this go round were the anecdotes of women in her life. Close friends and elders detailing stories both humorous and touching with no filter. Inadvertently doubling as witty commentary on cultural taboos pertaining to sex, power, money and beauty standards. At times, exploring these matters with a dignified shamelessness akin to men. “I feel like there's a double standard when it comes to the word ‘Ho’. I feel like men are able to find themselves and figure things out, but women are not given the same grace. We have to be perfect and I don't think that is fair. I wanted to even the score.”

The meteoric rises of Cardi B and Lizzo during Jazmine’s hiatus would also have an indelible impact on how she would shape the project’s audacious and unabashed disposition. Speaking on how they motivated her, she says: “They’re both so dynamic and made me want to be part of this movement where women are standing in their power. Lizzo especially as a beautiful plus size woman inspired me to feel okay being a little risqué.”

Sex is not uncharted territory in the canon of Jazmine Sullivan, but it is on ‘Heaux Tales’ where she is at her most forthcoming and insistent about it. “I started out when I was a kid, so of course the subject matter of my music would change the older that I get. I'm more comfortable in myself and my sexuality now”.

Case in point, the Ari Lennox-assisted bedroom ready jam ‘On It’. Vocally a made in heaven, the two powerhouses trade impassioned riffs and growls singing “I want to sit on it. So, tell me why you deserve it. Come on and prove why I should spit on it”. Black women have historically had to straddle the difficulties that come with their bodies being dually oversexualised and policed. Particularly those who sit on the periphery of acceptable classifications of desirability. Hence why tracks like ‘On It’, the trap bounce of ‘Put It Down’ and woozy intro track ‘Bodies’ are refreshing. They’re demonstrations of a newly confident woman defiantly shunning the incessant magnifying glasses put on her body. “I'm grown now. I’m 33 years old. I'm cool with whatever comes from putting it out there.”

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One of the immediate hallmarks when listening to ‘Heaux Tales’ is that it thematically picks up where parts of ‘Reality Show’ left off. Jazmine however, states this wasn’t deliberate. “It was not intentional, but I do believe that there were some things I guess left unsaid on ‘Reality Show’, that I probably still felt like I needed to kind of purge”. The commodified relationship between sexuality, fame and capitalism articulated on tracks like ‘Mascara’ is brought to the fray once again with added layers on ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Price Tags’.

Stylistically recalling the assertive but languid sounds of West Coast hip-hop, ‘Price Tags’ sees Jazmine reunite with Anderson .Paak. The duo previously collaborated on the short but sweet ‘Good Heels’ from Paak’s 2018 album ‘Ventura’. The preceding interlude, ‘Donna’s Tale’ is the project’s most scandalous. Featuring a group of elder women, they remark on how they’ve all strategically used sex with their partners in the past for monetary benefits. Dispelling the patriarchal myth that all women back in the day were supposedly more wholesome and respectable than the pockets of women today who can identify with the narratives that encompass ‘Price Tags’ and ‘The Other Side’.

Though some would argue these are not the most favourable of attributes to find community in, Jazmine sees it rather as a way of bridging the gap between generations, redefining sisterhood, “It was important to tell those stories as they’re often muted a lot of the time. I wanted to show women that we all experience the same things and bring more unity amongst us”. And therein lies the restorative necessity of ‘Heaux Tales’. Providing insight into varied lifestyles, it allows women to evaluate the experiences of others and themselves without narrow-minded judgements. Jazmine says: “I hope that it just opens up the opportunity for people to have these talks with themselves and try to figure out their deeper motivations for things”.

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‘Heaux Tales’ bears similarity to Lauryn Hill’s landmark ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ in that the interludes function as the project’s nucleus. ‘Rashida’s Tale’ in particular was notable for its representation of a black queer woman. A decision that was a no-brainer for Jazmine, “My cousin is in that community. She's a woman and she's had experiences too. Everybody’s story needs to be told. So, what that she loves women? Who cares? We’re all the same.”

Jazmine is a 12-time GRAMMY-nominated artist with veteran prestige. With 13 years under her belt, she’s now being name-checked as an influence on artists who’ve come after her like SZA, Tiana Major9, Ella Mai and ‘Girl Like Me’ collaborator H.E.R. Yet it is only recently that she has begun to grasp the magnitude of her musical contributions. “Honestly, I didn't think that my music would impact people’s hearts this much. So, I'm learning that I'm a vessel and that the way I put things together is special. I don't know if I’ve ever felt that way about myself but I'm happy I feel that way now.”

I ask Jazmine whether she feels she gets her just dues and if she’s privy to the chatter online protesting that she should be bigger. To which she responded, “Success is relative. We have to take into account if I even want to be as big as Adele or Beyonce. In which I'm not sure that I do because I value my privacy”. For Jazmine, personal happiness, peace and integrity is held in higher regard than acquiescing to the pressures that come with being a household name. “I feel appreciated from the people that love me and know my music. The fact that my people pack my shows out and get excited about my projects when I put them out. That’s what I care about. So, I do feel like I kind of get my flowers”.

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It is well known that unlike most artists, Jazmine likes to extradite herself from the industry for several years at a time between albums to regroup and live a normal life. Interestingly, the extensive length of her hiatuses have become even a surprise to her saying, “I never mean for my breaks to be as long as they actually turn out to be. In my head it’ll be like a year tops, then it just turns into something different”.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recent trials she’s encountered watching her mother battle breast cancer has forced Jazmine to value the time she has on earth. Vitally being more appreciative of the opportunity she has to connect with people all over the world through song. “With everything that is happening in the world right now, you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. I want to use as much of my time as possible making art. So hopefully, I won't be taking long breaks anymore”.

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'Heaux Tales' is out now.

Words: Sope Soetan // @SopeSoetan

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