As R&B’s newest wave of starlets continues to fetishize wispy vocals atop icy grooves, it’s hard to imagine how a singer as fiery as Jazmine Sullivan will regain footing after her unexpected half-decade hiatus. Emerging in the late aughts with a pair of hits that positioned her alternately as an earthy Lauryn Hill acolyte (“Need U Bad”) and a crowbar-toting avenger (“Bust Your Windows”), Sullivan proved adept at infusing an impressive array of styles with emotional rigor and youthful exuberance. At her core, though, she’s always been a descendent of the deep-soul tradition, a breed of artist that has all but vanished from the charts.
Marketability is not the only challenge awaiting an old-fashioned singer’s singer. Many of the most virtuosic voices in contemporary soul are at the mercy of their own lackluster material, and Sullivan would likely be sharing their fate if not for her ever-sharpening skills as a songwriter. Part of what makes her new album, Reality Show, so remarkable is how often it dares to foreground her pen over her pipes. Beyond the opening hip-hop stomper, “Dumb,” the album’s first third unfolds as a string of stories told from the perspective of disparate personas, each imbued with ambiguity, wit, and flashes of narrative detail.
In “Mascara,” a dolled-up heroine rides in on a stark, skittering beat, extoling the sex appeal and superficial values that have kept her “in the hills” and “out the hood.” Part haughty brag, part thinly veiled cry for help, the song risks glibness in its send-up of the gold-digger ethos, but Sullivan brings such playful self-awareness to the lyrics that it becomes impossible to ignore the raw insecurity beneath the satire. The track’s minimalism is something of a breakthrough for Sullivan: With limited recourse to her upper register and trademark melisma, she’s forced to be especially resourceful, finding pockets of tension in her burnished alto range.
In contrast, “Brand New,” which weaves through the frantic mind of a “down-ass chick” ditched by her just-signed musician boyfriend, is riddled with variations that feel almost cinematic. Prefaced by the call of a jazz trumpet, Sullivan jump-cuts furiously between slurred verses, hypersyllabic refrains, bursts of brittle harmony, and a sly interpolation of “Drunk In Love.” Where “Mascara” showcased a newfound restraint, “Brand New” demonstrates how much fun she can have at her most manic, with hairpin turns so exhilarating it takes a few listens for the protagonist’s disenchantment to fully register.
Most great singers use their voices as vehicles for emotional catharsis or technical mastery, but Sullivan has become just as interested in her own tragicomic form of ventriloquism. By manipulating her sound to give life to different personalities and attitudes, she’s paving a path for herself beyond the confessional modes of classic soul that have long been her comfort zone. Just hear her relish the grimy drawl on “#HoodLove,” the seductive pillow talk on “Veins,” and the hilarious Shirley Bassey-like intonations on “Stupid Girl” and you may be convinced R&B has found its Nicki Minaj.
What risks getting lost in Sullivan’s playacting, though, is the live-wire musicianship you hear in her concerts, which often bear more resemblance to the stream-of-consciousness testimony of gospel legends like the Clark Sisters and Kim Burrell than to anything in contemporary R&B. It’s not until the album’s second half that we get reacquainted with her classicist side, first in the luxurious, Babyface-inspired slow jam “Let It Burn,” then in the gut-wrenching torch song “Forever Don’t Last.” A portrait of the destructive love affair that stalled her career five years ago, the latter sets Sullivan against a spare backdrop of guitar and drums, giving her maximum space to wail and riff as if her life depended on it.
It’s key to the album’s success that “Forever Don’t Last” is its only traditional tearjerker. Despite what the rasp in her voice might suggest, Sullivan clearly sees herself as something other than R&B’s next great queen of pain. Her central themes—love and self-image—don’t stray far from genre convention, but her musical versatility and keenly observed characters make her one of the most captivating artists in R&B today. The Channel Oranges and Black Messiahs of the world may have her beat on sheer ambition, but her voice is no less essential.