From the very first trill of the Psycho-esque orchestral flourish that opens Jazmine Sullivan’s debut, Fearless, it’s clear that this girl is different. Yes, she thanks Jesus in the liner notes, but she calls him “my homey.” And though the 21-year-old Philly native’s voice recalls a surfeit of soul singers that came before her (first Toni Braxon—no, more like Lauryn Hill or Alicia Keys, then Mary J. Blige, and even echoes of Ella Fitzgerald), Sullivan has a youthful, 21st-century style that’s all her own…or maybe Amy Winehouse’s. But no matter: She’s certainly less of a novelty, in terms of packaging and accessibility, but no less talented than Wino, having had a hand in writing all of the songs on Fearless and displaying a range that should land her at least a couple of trophies at the Grammys in February.
Fearless is an apt title for Sullivan’s album, as two of its standout songs confront the topic of fear with equal parts trepidation and aplomb: On the first, “Lions, Tigers & Bears,” she admits, “I’m not scared to perform at a sold-out affair/But I’m scared of loving you,” while on the second, “Fear,” Sullivan catalogs a list for the ages, including “I’m scared to look ’cause I’m scared to see” and “I’m scared to learn ’cause I’m scared of the truth.” And what other modern mainstream artist today would be brave enough to admit that she’s scared of sex or, in an industry rife with smug, self-satisfaction, that “I’m scared that people won’t like my shit”?
The R&B answer to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” Sullivan’s current single, “Bust Your Windows,” finds the singer following the American Idol winner’s lead by taking a crowbar to her ex’s car, but where Underwood’s song scans like a pipedream, Sullivan exposes the reality beneath the revenge fantasy: “Oh, but why am I the one who’s still crying?” Salaam Remi, who produced part of Winehouse’s Back to Black, contributes to the song’s emotional weight with ominous, noir-style string samples—which, it should be noted, are taken from his own extensive oeuvre and used throughout Fearless. (Authentic samples by other artists play key roles elsewhere on the album, with the entirety of apparently go-to band Daft Punk’s disco-classical “Veridis Quo” providing the backing track for the Missy Elliott-helmed “Dream Big,” while Art of Noise’s “Beat Box” is used less overtly on “Fear.”)
The album’s only misstep—if you can even call it that, because, at worst, it’s a minor one—is the comparatively by-the-numbers, Stargate-produced ballad “After the Hurricane.” The rest of Fearless is comprised of one gem after the next, from the MJB-esque “Call Me Guilty,” the lyrics of which read like a Lifetime movie of the week but on record are a startling and fascinating recounting of the murder of an abusive partner (“You have the right to remain silent/No, I have the right to stay alive”), to the spare “In Love with Another Man,” yet another example of Sullivan’s refreshing, if near-pathological, allegiance to truth: “You treat me so much better than him/And if I was sane/There’d be no competition/But I’m in love with another man.” All three of these songs prove that Sullivan’s got the pipes and the depth of material to take her farther than that other talented Elliott protégé, Tweet, whose career sadly never took flight.