ALBUM REVIEW: Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
Is “Hot Girl R&B” a term? If not, Anti is coining it. Contemporary examples include Ungodly Hour by Chloe x Halle, Positions by Ariana Grande and to a certain extent, Good News by Megan Thee Stallion. Sultry R&B is nothing new of course, it comes with the territory. But this very specific storytelling and pride centered around promiscuous behavior is something that has noticeably evolved since the genre’s inception.
Jazmine Sullivan’s new album Heaux Tales is an essential entry in the canon of this genre. Back with confidence after five years of contemplation and an impressive weight loss transformation, Sullivan sounds like she spent her time getting into all types of situations. “I keep on piling up bodies, on bodies, on bodies/Yeah you getting sloppy girl/Gotta stop getting f*cked up/What did I have in my cup?/I don’t know where I woke up” Sullivan gracefully sings on the chorus to “Bodies - Intro”. She spends the rest of the record putting the pieces of these drunken nights together like a puzzle. The way she approaches this subject matter — being a “hoe” in men’s eyes — is bold and fearless.
The skits on this album are a double edged sword. On one hand, their presence makes it impossible for the songs to flow into each other concisely and build musical momentum. On the other hand, like Solange's triumphant A Seat at the Table, the interludes are creative and work to guide the overall purpose of the record. Each “tale” offers a different perspective on what it means to be a “heaux” not a “hoe”, an important distinction. Overall, it helps to redefine and elevate the term, to own it and offer new definitions for it.
“Antoinette’s Tale” calls out that classic “men are cool players, women are promiscuous” double-standard, breaks it down, and gives women their power back. Following this is a track similar to “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé, a female empowerment anthem that uses moving boxes as a metaphor for moving on. “Don’t forget to come and pick up your…feelings!!!” She sings over and over again on the chorus, which has an excellent melody on its own, but it’s made better with her smoky background vocals. The instrumental is pretty standard R&B, it reminds me a lot of The Weeknd’s “Earned It” with its steady drum beat, bass and piano.
“Ari’s Tale” and it’s subsequent songs take a different approach. Rather than being about finding confidence in oneself, it’s about being magnetically attached to a man. Ari Lennox, who speaks on the skit and features on “On It”, talks about how she nearly ruined her career for some executive d*ck. “If this ever came out you’d be like ‘b*tch do you know what Google says?’ Yes I do. But I also know what that d*ck says. That d*ck spoke life...into me” she states, before repenting to God like she’s in a confessional box. The following “Put It Down” is a surprising "king" anthem, not a track that would normally make sense on an album of this type. But Jazmine makes it work. Over a crisp trap instrumental, Sullivan shows off her versatility by singing and rapping about paying a man’s rent, letting him use her car, and showing up for him on command — all for “the D”, as she says. The chorus is so simple but infectious, “...put it down, put it down, put it down” “On It” with Ari Lennox goes Summer Walker with slow drums and washed guitars. “I want to sit on it” it opens, because of course it does, “spiiiit on it!” it continues. The two are DEMONS on this track, dear lord. They duet so soulfully, but the raunch factor is cranked up to 11.
“Donna’s Tale” sounds like a heaux family affair. A bunch of older women, led by “Donna”, laugh and rant about how married life is not so different from OnlyFans. “You have sex because you know your husband is gonna get you something you want the next day” she says “our mothers did it too” someone else chimes in. Nowhere else on the record is promiscuity owned and recontexualized than on this perfect vocal skit, a major highlight that proves that sex rules all. The tongue-in-cheek, Anderson .Paak featuring “Pricetags” completes the alley-oop. Sullivan confidently sings about how money makes her “p*ssy wet” while .Paak offers a funny and honest male perspective. “But if I get pinched based on suspicion/Are you gonna sing like Bobby in New Edition?”
While there’s nothing wrong with seeking material gain through sex, the theme is kind of repeated too much until the heartbreaking “Rashida’s Tale”, a chilling story of life-ruining infidelity. I love the way her story is continuously edited and quickly cut, while Sullivan’s background vocals provide a pillow for her to cry on. “Lost One” is not as strong of a track, however. It’s boring, drowned guitars just don't do much for me, although it is nearly saved by some great vocal work. Sullivan is a classically trained singer and an R&B vet, so she can hit the high notes, but the instrumental abruptly fading leaves the track off on a low note.
I hate “Precious Tales” and “The Other Side”. As I said, the money-sexuality connection got old earlier in the record, so for her to be making the worst skit and worst song on this topic so late in the record is a let down. A line like “I’m hoping these titties can get me out the city” just sounds like giving up after discovering the power within herself so early on in the record. It makes the album feel like SZA’s Control but on shuffle, making the purpose and themes muddled.
“Amanda’s Tale” thankfully saves the day, it brings back the self-worth while pointing out the eventual sadness of sex as the sole source for one’s empowerment. “Girl Like Me” with H.E.R. is a great track, although I think Sullivan sounds a little too much like SZA for someone who’s been making R&B since the ‘00s. Some of the lyrics feel like they have an expiration date as well, referencing Fashionnova and Tinder, but the vocal performance from H.E.R. on the backend is strong enough to make me look past all that, especially when the two interlock voices. “I didn’t wanna be, but you’re gonna make a heaux outta me” Sullivan proudly sings, reaching a conclusion.