It seems the saddest rule of thumb in R&B music: the greats tend to take lengthy hiatuses between projects – the likes of Brandy, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu always keeping fans hanging – and singer-songwriter Jazmine Sullivan is no exception. Her last project was 2015’s hugely-acclaimed and, frankly, modern masterpiece Reality Show, which continued her trajectory of reaching new heights with each progressive release (the complex melodies of “Mascara” alone should’ve locked a Grammy down). With only 2017’s Bryson Tiller-featuring single “Insecure” in the interim, there was understandably a lot of anticipation surrounding the singer’s next release. Thankfully, starting our 2021 off with a punch comes Sullivan with the incendiary Heaux Tales.
This EP/project (Sullivan has emphasised on her Twitter: please do not call it an album) that explores the spectrum of emotions surrounding modern sexual politics and romantic fallout – in particular for women of colour. Although Sullivan’s catalogue has been consistently soul-baring, clever and confrontational, this EP possesses a sharper edge of maturity and explicitness than anything she’s previously done. The project is audacious, gut-wrenching, empowering and humorous. Every song is a vignette representing a different facet of sexual dynamics or shattering post-breakup pain. Supporting the various narratives are interludes of different women’s unflinching and raw stories that lyrically correspond to the subsequent song. It is an effective exercise in world-building, with Sullivan giving an unfiltered glimpse into the power and pitfalls of trying to find connection with others while not losing the connection to yourself.
The project begins with “Bodies”, an introduction that has Sullivan lashing herself with self-deprecation after a one-night stand and questioning who she went home with; “need to stop getting fucked up,” she admonishes herself over a minimalist groove of synths and finger snaps. Starting the EP in a place of regret serves to create a foundation on which to build inner strength. With its iconic quotability (“Bitch! Get it together, bitch!”), this is a bold introduction to the project’s direction.
Following this (after the first interlude “Antoinette’s Tale”) is “Pick Up Your Feelings” – a classic R&B kiss-off track to a player which showcases Sullivan’s gritty, soulful vocals as she sings: “You’re off the lease / Run me my keys / No more poppin’ up to hit it.” This isn’t the Jazmine Sullivan who once threatened to bust the windows out someone’s car, but someone more attuned to their self-worth and success. It’s all in the title: her telling somebody not to forget to pick up their feelings, implying that she isn’t remotely bothered about showing them the door.
Part of what makes this EP striking is its unbridled sexuality. The trap-influenced bop “Put It Down” has Sullivan flexing her sing-rapping skills as she says she is willing to give a man anything he wants, from paying his rent to lending him her car as long as he gives her the “D.” It is a fun track about being so hypnotised by great sex that it eclipses being financially taken advantage of. Meanwhile, “On It” (which features the buttery vocals of Ari Lennox) is probably the most explicit track on this project. A traditional, neo-soul influenced slow jam, Sullivan and Lennox displaying great vocal chemistry as they sing about a man having to earn his sexual keep through cunnilingus (“spit on it”). Like “Put It Down”, there is still some humour percolating in the erotic atmosphere with a particularly striking line describing a “lil’ bowlegged hood n**ga with the nine-inch.” Then there is “Pricetags”, with Anderson .Paak playing a man being squeezed for cash by Sullivan who, with a straightforward glint in her eye, sings: “Yeah I’mma take all I can get / That money keeps the pussy wet.” It is a different kind of sexual gratification – the type that arises from being financially taken care of.
A mood of pathos enters the project with “Lost One” – a gritty, stripped-back track that has Sullivan reeling after losing someone due to toxic behaviour. Over hollow guitar strumming, she calls herself a “selfish bitch” and talks about trying to heal through sex with other people, “to cope and ignore all precautions.” It is the type of heartbreak ballad Sullivan does amazingly (see “In Love With Another Man” and “Forever Don’t Last”).
Later on comes “The Other Side”, the EP’s undoubted highlight that will thrill those enamoured with the singer’s lower range. It’s a cinematic, gorgeous track that initially sounds like it’s about gold-digging but is actually about a woman’s ambition to escape struggle and financial hardship. The beautiful and tear-jerking track comes to a head in the chorus as she sings: “Can’t wait to be rich / Want a better life / Diamonds, cars and trips / All money can buy.” Maybe it’s because of the pandemic, where people are being forced to face many crises especially in regards to money, but the lyrics hit the heart in the universal desire to have a good life.
The concluding “Girl Like Me” is a guitar-driven track that analyses the self-consciousness and insecurities that arise from men casually abandoning women for somebody else; “Knew it was real when you blocked me / Now I sit at home judging my body.” Sullivan and guest vocalist H.E.R. confront disloyalty and the irony of men castigating and shaming women for being “hoes” when they are unable to look at their own shortcomings in their treatment of women. It is a full circle moment that rounds out the project appropriately with Sullivan singing: “A hoe I’ll be… / That’s what you wanted / That’s what you get.” There is a sense of justified jadedness, of realising that sexual liberation is about reclaiming power back from those who have diminished it.
Heaux Tales is a provocative return for Sullivan that showcases her incredible knack for storytelling. Beyond the reclamation of the word “hoe”, she gives dimension and voice to women who are all too frequently misunderstood. Whether she is the heartbreaker or the heartbroken, the one dropping a stack for a man or letting a man drop a stack for her, she acknowledges all these aspects of her character. By sharing these tales, it seems Sullivan’s aim is to remind us that the human experience is just inherently messy – and often contradictory – with successes and missteps in equal measure; that only through acknowledging what we go through can we stay connected to others and ourselves.