Jazmine Sullivan, "Heaux Tales" (RCA)
Sullivan has never prettified romance. In her songs, love nearly always leads to pain: rejection, infidelity, heartbreak, violence. Her narrators don't spare anyone who wrongs them; they don't forgive their own failings either.
Sullivan's music carries the churchy emotionality and down-to-earth detail of vintage Southern soul into the everyday situations and electronic soundscapes of hip-hop. Her fourth and bleakest CD, "Heaux Tales" makes clear that her stories were never meant to be hers alone.
"Heaux Tales" is schematic, a successor to didactic concept albums like "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and the visual version of Beyoncé's "Lemonade." Spoken-word "tales" from six women — confessions and hard-earned observations — are followed by songs that flesh them out as character studies. "Heaux" is a Frenchified version of "ho," placing a longtime insult at an analytical distance. In the songs here, Sullivan looks behind dismissive stereotypes — party girl, avenger, sex addict, gold digger, cheater, castoff — to show complicated human longings behind them.
Last fall, Sullivan released "Pick Up Your Feelings," a cutting, unforgiving farewell to a cheating lover, by no means the first in her catalog. But the righteous anger of a breakup is one of the album's easier stances. Other songs venture into trickier, more ambivalent territory. In "Lost One" the singer is the betrayer. She also embraces female desire as compulsion and challenge. In "Put It Down," Sullivan sings in crisp, near-rap cadences about letting lust override all her better judgment.
With spoken-word goading, Sullivan ponders the ways sex can turn into a material transaction — being a "heau" — in "Pricetags," "The Other Side" and "Girl Like Me." She ties the album's themes together in its finale, "Girl Like Me." Joined by H.E.R., she is wounded and adrift. Her boyfriend moved on with no explanation, leaving her insecure about her body and wondering what he wanted. It's not a happy ending. It's just a way for one scarred character, on an album full of them, to persevere.
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