Myesha Evon Gardner/Courtesy of the artist
For all that feels unstable in the world right now, artists have kept making art — describing life and helping us make sense of things, each in their own way. Jazmine Sullivan, the Grammy nominee behind R&B hits like “Bust Your Windows” and “Need U Bad,” has taken the past few years to herself, away from the spotlight, but she returns now with her first album since 2015, Heaux Tales.
Sullivan joined NPR’s Michel Martin to talk about why it’s important for women to tell their own stories — even the parts they’re not proud of — and how a prolonged break from recording gave her the focus to create music that is bracingly honest about her and her friends’ experiences with love and relationships. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michel Martin: Your last album, Reality Show, came out in 2015. How do you feel now that Heaux Tales is out?
Jazmine Sullivan: I’m relieved, definitely, and very excited about the response that I’m getting, what I feel like it’s doing for women. When you’re creating something, you’re never quite sure — at least I’m not — how people are going to take it and interpret it. Since I put it out, it’s been such an amazing response; things have been happening for me lately that I couldn’t even have dreamed about. I feel like things are really turning around for me, and I’m just excited to see where life takes me.
I recognize that it’s almost cliché to talk about an album’s title, but here I feel like I have to ask. Tell me, what’s the significance?
The idea started two years ago: I had a meeting with my A&R and the president of the company, and I was feeling anxious about the next project; I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. And they thought maybe I should do a conceptual piece, because a lot of the time, the way that I write, it’s vivid and you can see the characters. I went home and thought about it, and I just thought it would be interesting to bring the conversations that I’ve had with my girls since we were in high school, and the conversations that women have amongst themselves, to light.
It’s an album in the best sense of the word: It almost feels like a collection of short stories, but unified around a theme. Is that how you saw it?
Yeah, definitely. I just wanted to tell the untold stories of women. I feel like society makes it seem like we have to be perfect and present ourselves a certain way to be considered a good woman. We’re so very layered and multidimensional and we have stories to tell, and they’re all not great stories but that’s what makes us who we are.
To be honest, I had a moment after a really bad breakup that had gotten physical. I’ve talked about it since it happened, but it was around the time Love Me Back, my second album, had came out. I had moved on from the situation and thought I healed from the trauma of it all, and as life went on, I realized that I didn’t. I was still kind of acting out a lot of the hurt and pain that I had experienced. After that time, I felt a little ashamed about the things that I did and I allowed myself to do. It was not my best moment, but I had to extend myself some grace because I was really beating myself up about it. At a certain point, I was just like, “Jazmine, you know what? You went through hell, and you dealt with it the way that you could at the time, and it’s OK. You’ve learned from your lessons and you moved on, and you’re in a better place.”
I feel like that’s everybody’s story, and I wanted to allow women to feel like it’s OK to go through the normal things we go through. As long as you learn from those things, you’re still good, sis. You’re still a good woman.
I appreciate that you came out through the other side and can talk about it in a way that helps other people make sense of those experiences. It leads me to “Girl Like Me.” What’s behind this song? Is the story you were just telling us part of what inspired it?
The song came first, but I identified with it as a woman, as a Black woman — as a woman who I feel like is on the side of the regular girls who don’t look like Instagram models and never have, with social media having gotten so popular, seeing those images all the time and it getting to you. It gets to you after a while.
“Girl Like Me” features another R&B star, H.E.R. The two of you sound great together. What goes into that collaboration process, and was it harder because of COVID-19? How does something like this come together?
We definitely couldn’t be in the studio together. And I was actually nervous to ask, because I hear that people, you know, they’ve been influenced by me or they like my music, but I never know how people are going to feel. And I also know that I’m not out a lot — I take really long breaks. Some people, if you’re not in the spotlight, you’re kind of out of sight, out of mind. But I went on and asked anyway, and I was so shocked that she responded so quickly and loved the music and wanted to be a part of it. It just warmed my heart, because I didn’t know if anybody would care to work with me, and she did. She’s such an amazing musician, and just fit right in with the song.
The album is set up in such an interesting way: Half of it is interludes, where women describe their different experiences and perspectives on relationships and sex. It’s a conversation throughout.
I know everybody on the “tales” — they’re my best friends, they’re my family, they’re friends of friends. I was able to place a song with the person who could delve deeper into the subject. I’m so proud of everybody that was included on this project, because it takes a lot to be honest. Especially about things … you know, it’s hard things that they’re talking about.
The thing about this album is that it’s very real and raw: It says things that I think a lot of people feel but aren’t always willing to say. Along those lines, I want to talk about “The Other Side.” There’s been this big debate in hip-hop in recent years, if it’s been too focused on the material things and glamour. It’s interesting to hear this take on it — framing it as the desire for a better life.
I’ve always been fascinated with a girl who wants and desires things, money and trips and all the things that come with money, ever since “Mascara.” When I wrote that song, I was actually on Instagram, looking at the Instagram girls — and I was fascinated by their lives and the trips they were taking and, of course, their physical beauty and what their physical beauty allowed for them to experience. But what I thought was most important and wasn’t talked about enough is, we talk about what they want but we don’t talk about why they want it.
That’s what I think the track “Precious’ Tale” did, was explain the psyche behind what people would call a gold digger. We focus on the fact that they’re a gold digger, we even shame them for being a gold digger, but do we know their story? Do we know why they desire that? I think, after hearing “Precious’ Tale,” a lot of other women were able to realize their judgement that they pass on those people and identify with the fact that, “You know what, I want nice things too.”
You’ve opened up a way to think about it that’s fascinating. I’m trying to even think about how to describe this conversation. There’s an expression that’s often used, “airing dirty laundry.” Is this that?
I do think that it is airing dirty laundry, but I also think that you learn why people are the way they are, and you’re able to connect to that. I’m not opposed to showing the bad in your life, because that’s a part of life. Everything is not great. … Sometimes you’re not making the best decision. But it’s about self-reflection — being able to look yourself in the eye and admit to yourself that you’re not, and then figuring out what to do about it. That’s what I hope the project is doing: creating a mirror for everyone to fix, or not fix, what it is about your life that you’re going through.
So much of the music of the music industry is still controlled by men, and on the one hand, there can be a lot of validation for women in music being very sexual — but on the other hand, as you noticed, there’s a lot of judgment. Do you feel yourself self-censoring at times? Or do you feel like you’ve gotten to a place where you no longer have to?
In my music, I never self-censor. In life, yes. You feel like you’re not able to fully be yourself because society has dictated how they want to imagine a woman — in the most perfect form, whatever they think is perfect. It’s not reality. But in my music, no. I’ve always said how I felt, no matter what that was.
Particularly on this project, I was influenced by a few women today that I felt like were busting through those barriers and helping me feel more confident in who I am. I’ve talked about Cardi B — my first time seeing her online, the things that she says were so funny to me. It was just completely who she was. And also Lizzo, who represented for us big, beautiful Black women. I was so proud of her for telling the world that she loves herself. Even if you do love yourself, I feel like some people may try to hide it because they don’t feel like everybody else will get with it, but she just put it out there. It inspired me to get on that track, and want to continue to help women bust the barriers down.
You mentioned taking long breaks between albums. A lot of the time, it’s feast or famine for artists: The lifestyle is harder than I think a lot of people know. The breaks that you have taken, have they helped you? Were they by choice? What role do you think they played in your art?
Well, I’m an advocate for breaks when needed. I think that sometimes you have to go into your quiet place and self-reflect, whatever it is that you need to do. For me, my breaks, I never intended for them to be as long as they were — I literally thought, maybe I’ll take, at the most, a year. I’m just going to chill. And then life gets in the way, and before I know it, it’s two, three years, and even longer than that. But they have helped me. The more that I’m living my life, my regular life, the more that I’m able to write these songs and these experiences that I don’t know if I would be able to write if I was constantly moving or constantly doing things. As an artist, I don’t know if I would be able to go certain places.
So, they’ve helped. But I know that I wouldn’t take as long now because of the things that I’ve been through in my personal life. My mom getting cancer a year ago. And even with COVID-19, time for me is a little more precious now that I have gone through those things. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, and I wouldn’t want to lose so much of my time. I wouldn’t take as long as the breaks I’ve taken.
It sounds like it fed you, in a way, even though it’s not something that you would have chosen.
I mean, definitely. We have learned so much and grown so much in this time. We’ve grown closer to God, and he’s definitely the reason that we’re here in the state we’re in. She actually just finished her last round of chemo, so at the end of the month we’re looking to ring the bell and move forward from this. But we’ve gotten so much closer, obviously, since something like this happens where you just truly appreciate, appreciate the people in your life.
I have to brag on the NPR Tiny Desk (home) concert you did, which was just posted last week. In a normal year, you would have performed at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in front of a crowd. But this performance is still very energetic; it’s very you. There’s ad-libbing, at one point you even break into scat singing, all things that people love to see in a live performance. What is that like when it’s just you, when there’s nobody there to give you that energy?
I’m not going to lie, I’ve been quarantining since before quarantine started, so I’m pretty comfortable [laughs]. But the music really filled the air with the NPR performance. I was just excited to hear live musicians and live vocalists, so if there was a spark it was because I loved the people I had to accompany me. They were all amazing in their own right. I was happy to be amongst everybody, and to be creating.