Album Review: Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Heaux Tales’

There are national treasures and there are international treasures. And then there is Jazmine Sullivan. Blessed with a voice from another dimension and a disarmingly honest pen, Jazmine Sullivan is one of the greatest artists of our time. Throughout her fruitful career, from “Bust Your Windows” to “Mascara,” Jazmine has gifted us legendary songs stemming from her singular ability to tell stories. Whether she is writing songs based on her own experiences or relaying the experiences of other women, Jazmine has perfected the art of storytelling. Her raspy malleable voice hits every gravelly low note with the delicacy and somberness needed to sell each lyric. At the same time, she is able to fly through intricate riffs with lightning precision without it feeling like she’s trying to remind us that she’s a good singer. Soul courses through every lyric, every note, and every chord of Jazmine’s music. That’s “Soul” with an uppercase S; the kind of Soul that’s intrinsically Black and steeped in the rich musical Eden that is the Black church. The kind of Soul that transforms throughout the years but still evokes that same feeling in your gut and in your heart. In her recent Tiny Desk performance, Jazmine rapped, sang, and scatted her way through myriad subgenres of R&B that all rang with unadulterated Soul.

Jazmine’s Soul and her storytelling talent are at their full powers on her latest project, Heaux Tales. An ambitious concept record, Heaux Tales features eight new songs stitched together by spoken-word interludes from a plethora of women dissecting the complexities of sex, love, lust, desire, and womanhood. Featuring collaborations with Ari Lennox, Anderson .Paak, and H.E.R., Jazmine unites with some of R&B’s biggest stars for songs that are lusty, angsty, and uncomfortable in their honesty.

Things kick off with an intro that will likely be better than most full-length tracks this year. Produced by Key Wane (“Partition”; “I Don’t Fuck With You”), “Bodies” centers Jazmine in the aftermath of another reckless night out. There’s a certain gravitational pull around her delivery of “Bitch, get it together, bitch” that sucks you into the drama of “pilin’ up bodies on bodies on bodies.” Cascading background vocals and perfectly placed ad-libs function as the voices of the other women whose experiences inform Heaux Tales. The repetition of “I don’t know where I woke up” gives Jazmine a facelessness and namelessness that allows her to assume the identities of the different testimonials and relay those experiences through songs that double as character studies of each woman. The rap-singing on “Bodies” is excellent, and it’s a tease for an even more impressive rap showcase on “Put It Down” later on the album.

“Pick Up Your Feelings,” the second single released from Heaux Tales was already great on its own. In the context of the project, however, its placement after “Antoinette’s Tale” transforms the song into a kiss-off anthem of epic proportions. The song continuously builds until that gut-wrenching “but don’t forget to come and pick up your feelings” at the beginning of the final chorus slams through the track like a ton of bricks. The kiss-off is short-lived, though. With “Ari’s Tale,” narrated by Ari Lennox herself, two new songs are introduced that are two sides of the same thematic coin. The first is “Put It Down.” Probably the greatest example yet of how to sing over a trap beat, “Put It Down” sees Jazmine rap-singing about how good her man, well, puts it down on her. She slightly slurs her words and builds harmonies around the repetitive hook to symbolize the intoxicating and hypnotizing power of sex and lust. It’s the perfect contrast to both “Pick Up Your Feelings” and “On It.” On “Ari’s Tale,” Ari divulges that “That dick spoke life into me. Invigoration, blessings, soul, turmoil, but, Heaven, Jesus, Allah, sorry.” On no song is the seriousness of her claims more apparent than on “On It.” A slow-burning vocal showcase, “On It” is the nastiest gospel-sounding song you’re likely to hear in your life. Ari’s timbre rings across the track and it’s the perfect contrast to Jazmine’s trademark rasp. Together, their voices are heaven. The two croon “I’ll sit on it” and “Baby look at me, baby I’ll spit on it” as if they caught the Holy Ghost mid-sentence. You may want to blush initially, but the longer the song goes on the more you want it to keep going. It’s easily a standout on the project and one of the best recent female R&B collaborations. “Put It Down” and “On It” are sister songs, but the former is more about what Jazmine, or women, in general, will do for men who put it down right (“I got the check if he ask me/I pay his rent if he nasty”). The latter, on the other hand, is about what Jazmine, or women, in general, will do to men who put it down right. It’s a subtle, but important, difference that adds further nuance to the incredibly layered concept of the project.

RCA

The topic of sex gets further complicated on Heaux Tales once money is brought into the equation on “Donna’s Tale” and the Anderson .Paak-assisted “Pricetags.” Donna explains that all women “trick” in some way and use sex as a tool to get things that they want; “And our mommas did it too” is one of the most important lines in the monologue, if not the whole record, because of its cross-generational reach. Jazmine and Anderson explore this phenomenon on the J-Mo-produced “Pricetags.” Lyrically, Jazmine moves away from paying rent to saying, “If he want the pussy first he gotta CashApp me, hunnids.” Vocally, Jazmine stays near the bottom of her range and chooses a more monotonous and sinister tone for the chorus: “Hunnids, hunnids in my hand/Want it, want it spend them bands.” There was some (unwarranted) controversy over a colorist line (“But that baby came out black as Samuel in Pulp Fiction/I’m light skin and, my grandaddy Indian/You fuckin’ with my lineage and dividends”) in Anderson .Paak’s verse, but listeners would do well to remember that everyone is playing a character in a universe specifically created for the purpose of this record’s concept. Anderson is clearly playing the role of an Ain’t Shit Nigga, so a line like that is very much in character. In that vein, Heaux Tales’ closing track, “Girl Like Me (feat. H.E.R.)” sees the two R&B divas playing a different set of characters. The singers play a pair of women whose internalized misogyny leads them to believe that men are the reason they must conform to what they believe are “ho”-like behaviors. It’s an interesting and needed perspective on a project that is filled with them. H.E.R.’s excellent guitar playing coupled with the pair’s vocal chemistry make “Girl Like Me” another standout track. It’s nice to hear H.E.R. alongside a singer that can actually challenge her vocally. This track’s preceding monologue, “Amanda’s Tale,” details the intricacies of placing sex in a position of power or as a modifier of self-worth.

As Heaux Tales draws to a close, the songs on the project’s back half ring with maturity and growth that songs at the top of the record lacked. “The Other Side” is like a stronger version of “Pick Up Your Feelings.” While “Feelings” still centered the man and his feelings despite being a kiss-off anthem, “The Other Side” is explicitly concerned with the vibrancy of a new life and new mindset outside of that relationship. Jazmine’s rasp kicks into high gear over the sweeping instrumental as she sings of her plans to move to Atlanta, get a rapper boyfriend, get a better life, and never be broke again. “The Other Side” is not one of Heaux Tales’ stronger songs, but, like every part of the record, it is vital to the full story. And, of course, there’s “Lost One,” Heaux Tales’ lead single and Black Boy Bulletin’s #1 Song of 2020. A masterpiece on its own, and even better when contextualized by “Rashida’s Tale,” this aching look at loss and separation is a welcome break from the other dominant themes of Heaux Tales. Words can’t describe how perfect this song is.

Heaux Tales is a masterpiece. It’s hard to believe that this is just an EP and not Jazmine’s fourth studio album. In just over thirty minutes, Jazmine Sullivan explores some of the most complex and uncomfortable concepts in this intricate patchwork of stories and experiences. She sounds better than ever on Heaux Tales, and, artistically, she’s never been more in tune with her mission as a storyteller.

Key Tracks: “Lost One” | “Put It Down” | “Bodies” | “On It”

Score: 93

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