The pressure to follow-up on even a mildly well-received debut can be paralyzing (here’s looking at you, Lauryn). Jazmine Sullivan, who heroically fessed up to her fears about fame, success, and intimacy on her aptly titled 2008 album Fearless, seemed like the type of artist who would triumph under said pressure. So it’s disappointing that she doesn’t raise the bar on her sophomore effort, Love Me Back—but she doesn’t crumble under the weight of expectations either.
A rather formulaic duet with Ne-Yo, “U Get on My Nerves,” includes a reference to Sullivan’s hit “Bust Your Windows,” which is cute but somewhat of a letdown (that’s the guy who was apparently worthy of Psycho-style strings and a potential misdemeanor?), but Love Me Back fails to reprise many of its predecessor’s themes or explore any overarching new ones. That’s not to say that every album has to possess some kind of through line, but a song like “Stuttering,” which might raise some eyebrows over at the National Stuttering Association, seems more like an excuse for Sullivan to show off her scatting skills than an examination of emotional or physical handicaps.
That said, Salaam Remi, a major presence on Fearless, returns to provide some interesting backdrops for Sullivan’s supple voice, and the LOS da Mystro-produced “Don’t Make Me Wait” is a welcomed throwback to a time when R&B unironically and unabashedly bumped hips with disco. Sullivan employs her lower register under the guise of a crack fiend on “Redemption,” and she digs even deeper on the second verse to take on the role of an abusive boyfriend (a sort of prequel to Fearless’s stirring “Call Me Guilty”).
But it’s the album’s penultimate track, “Famous” (in which Sullivan confesses her overwhelming, even tragic, need to be loved—also hinted at in the album’s title—atop an inventive and understated mix of handclap percussion, strings, and piano), that comes closest to recapturing what made Fearless such a singular work, and one of the best R&B debuts in recent memory: Sullivan’s willingness to publicly psychoanalyze herself in such a brutally honest—and yes, fearless—way.