On her fourth album, Jazmine Sullivan contends with all that can be lost and gained through sex and love. She is in full command of her spectacular voice and totally delivers on an ambitious concept.
Watching Jazmine Sullivan thrill herself with her own ability is like watching Spider-Man gleefully swing from skyrise to skyrise, not an enemy in sight. Just look at Sullivan shimmy on a recent NPR Music Tiny Desk (Home) concert as she sings, “I’m hoping these titties can get me out the city,” her voice tickling its lower depths. Her eyes widen with feigned confusion when she coos the words, “I don’t know where I woke up.” When she belts, “Don’t have too much fun without me,” from Heaux Tales’ outstanding single “Lost One,” she throws her head, arms, and palms back, as if offering herself to something bigger.
Heaux Tales itself looks to something bigger, too, beyond Sullivan as its subject or star. Her fourth album is expansive and inclusive, embodying as many women’s insights into love and sex (read “Heaux” as “ho”) as 32 minutes could reasonably allow. Across eight songs connected by spoken-word interludes from different women, Heaux Tales unfurls a patchwork of origins, outcomes, thrills, and disasters of coital indulgence in her most cohesive work to date. Sullivan strategically activates her regal voice with stories that are sharp, intimate, and addictive.
One of Sullivan’s breaks into popular R&B was with the 2008 revenge tango “Bust Your Windows.” The scorned lover in the song is one of many personas Sullivan would act out over the course of three albums that pulsed with drama and camp. Her music has jumped from reggae to disco to boom-bap to marching band and more as she explored the lives of women and men in the throes of crime, passion, and addiction. Heaux Tales, by contrast, commits to simpler, more timeless soundscapes, like the snaps and synths of “Bodies” or the standout guitars of “Lost One” and “Girl Like Me.” Over the comparably minimalist production and instrumentation, the album’s narratives of agency are made central.
There is a direct throughline between the archetypal portraits Sullivan has painted in the past and the more dynamic accounts here. On “Mascara,” from her 2015 album Reality Show, Sullivan personified a proud gold digger with an attitude to match. “We all want to be that confident person,” Sullivan said about the song at the time. “And it’s hard to be that way. ’Cause you always feel like somebody’s judging you.” Throughout Heaux Tales, though, the motivations and makings of women who do or wish to earn material things through love and sex are considered with more kindness and clarity. In one of the spoken intermissions, a woman named Precious Daughtry says a childhood of deprivation repels her from men without money. Her words are followed by Sullivan’s searing performance of “The Other Side,” a vivid daydream about moving to Atlanta to be with a rapper who can provide for her. “I just want to be taken care of/’Cause I’ve worked enough,” she reasons.
The album’s perspectives do contradict themselves at times. On songs like “The Other Side” and the Anderson .Paak-assisted “Pricetags,” sex is a bold means of empowerment, financial or otherwise. Then, on one interlude, Sullivan’s friend of 20 years, Amanda Henderson, dejectedly admits that looking to sex for power leaves her feeling insecure. “Amanda’s Tale” is followed by “Girl Like Me,” in which Sullivan and H.E.R. sing of the hos in Fashion Nova dresses who steal their love interests away from them. Ho-ing goes from a source of pride and abundance to one of shame. Sullivan’s songwriting is agile: These conflicting judgements and desires live in women—and both can live in one woman at once.
All over Heaux Tales, Sullivan contends with what can be lost and gained through sex, from a secure sense of self (“Get it together, bitch,” she tells herself on “Bodies.” “You gettin’ sloppy.”) to crazed pleasure (“I spend my last ’cause the D bomb,” she proudly admits on “Put It Down”). The colloquial bursts of specificity in these vignettes are a feat of songwriting, and the restraint a power-vocalist like Sullivan shows in her delivery is as important. Sometimes her voice is choppy and conversational, sometimes it sounds like rapping, and it’s almost always a delight to sing along to. On this album, she’s both Deena Jones and Effie White; she can be an easy-listen or an all-consuming one. From the crinkly opening run on “Put It Down,” her most powerful singing is mixed into the background, as if to render her a little less superhuman.
R&B has long offered women space to voice their sexual appetites, from the foundational dirty blues songs like Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ’Em Dry” in 1935 (“Say I fucked all night and all the night before, baby/And I feel just like I want to fuck some more”) to Adina Howard’s 1995 hit “Freak Like Me.” After six years between projects, Sullivan joins the ranks of today’s R&B and R&B-adjacent stars like Summer Walker and SZA, who have updated the genre with music that complicates desire with messy reality. Old archetypes like The Gold Digger and new ones like The Instagram Baddie begin to crumble away, leaving fuller women in their wake. Sullivan’s friend Amanda Henderson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she was nervous to include her revelation on Heaux Tales, but has since found relief in the number of fans who have connected to it. Even in the way Sullivan’s Tiny Desk was arranged—with lush instrumental breaks, opportunities for her background singers to take the spotlight, and a guest appearance from H.E.R.—it is clear Heaux Tales is communal.