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Jazmine Sullivan On 'Heaux Tales,' Dirty Laundry And The Value Of Taking Breaks

Jan 16, 2021
Originally published on January 16, 2021 5:05 pm

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.

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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."

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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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, there's a lot in the world that seems crazy right now, but wonderfully for us, artists keep making art, describing things, helping us make sense of things, each in their own way, which is one reason we're glad to tell you about new music from Jazmine Sullivan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICK UP YOUR FEELINGS")

JAZMINE SULLIVAN: (Singing) So don't forget to come and pick up your feelings. Don't leave no pieces. You need to hurry and pick up your, pick up your feelings.

MARTIN: That's "Pick Up Your Feelings" from her latest album, "Heaux Tales" - more on that in a minute. You may be familiar with the Grammy-nominated singer from her previous hits, such as "Bust Your Windows" and "Need U Bad." She is back after taking some time out of the spotlight. And when we caught up with her, she told us about the inspiration for the album and its title.

SULLIVAN: I just want to tell the untold stories of women. I feel like, as women, society makes it seem like we have to be perfect and present ourselves a certain way. And 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. And to be honest, I had a moment after a really bad breakup that had gotten physical - and I've talked about it since it happened, but it was around the time "Love Me Back," my second album, came out.

And I had moved on from the situation, and I had thought I healed from the trauma of it all. And as life went on, I realized that I didn't. And I was still kind of acting out a lot of the hurt and pain that I had experienced. And after that time, I felt a little ashamed about the things that I did and I allowed myself to do. But I had to extend myself some grace because I was really beating myself up about it.

And I was just, like - at a certain point, I was just, like, Jazmine, you know what? You went through hell, and, you know, you dealt with it the way that you could at the time. And it's OK. You learned from your lessons, and you've moved on, and you are in a better place. And I feel like that's everybody's stories. And I wanted to allow women to feel like it's OK to go through the normal things that we go through. As long as you learn from those things, you're still good, sis. Like, you're still a good...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: You're still a good woman.

MARTIN: Well, first, I do want to say I'm sorry that happened to you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: But 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, which leads me to want to play "Girl Like Me." Let's just play it, and then we'll talk a bit more about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL LIKE ME")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) Knew it was real when you blocked me. Now I sit at home judging my body, wondering what I did to lose you, why in the hell you ain't (ph) choose me, why you don't love me no more. I don't even know what for. You must have wanted something different, still don't know what I was missing. What you asked, I would have...

MARTIN: I do want to mention that the song features another R&B star, H.E.R., who's also, you know, just doing, you know, great things, as you are. The two of you sound great together.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. H.E.R. is amazing - absolutely love H.E.R.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL LIKE ME")

JAZMINE SULLIVAN FEAT HER: (Singing) You leave me with no choice. I can't do this good girl, good girl no more.

MARTIN: What goes into the collaboration process with you? And was it harder because of COVID?

SULLIVAN: Well, we definitely couldn't be in a studio together. And I was actually nervous to ask because, you know, I hear that people - they have been influenced by me or that they like my music or even love my music. But I just - I never know how people are going to feel and what people will think about actually working with me.

So I was scared to ask, but I went on and asked anyway. And I was so shocked that she responded so quickly and was so down and loved the music. And it just warmed my heart because, like I said, she's amazing. She's just such an amazing musician. And she, like, just fit right the with the song.

MARTIN: It's fascinating because R&B has very often been focused on - but a lot of music. Let's just be honest. I mean, music is either, like, sacred or secular, right? It's either worshipping God, or it's about relationships and sex. I mean, that's just - so much of music is about those things.

But it's - I've always been fascinated by what women in music, when they have something to say, how they get to a place of being able to say what they want to say because so much of the industry still is controlled by men. I mean, let's just be honest about it. It is. And so there's so much - on the one hand, there's a lot of validation for women being very sexual. On the other hand, as you notice, there's a lot of judgment for women being very sexual. And I think women are just starting to talk about that in music.

SULLIVAN: Right.

MARTIN: And I was just interested in whether you - do you feel like there's some line you have to walk as a woman in music who wants to say certain things, but you want to say whatever you want to say? I mean, do you feel yourself self-censoring at times? Do you feel like you've gotten to a place where you no longer have to?

SULLIVAN: In my music, I never self-censor. In life, yes. I mean, you know, you just feel like you're not able to fully be yourself because society has kind of dictated how they want to imagine a woman. But in my music, no. I've kind of always said how I felt no matter what that was. And particularly on this project, I was influenced by a few women today that I felt like were busting through those barriers and helping me to feel more confident in who I am.

I talked about Cardi B and just my first time seeing her online and just, like, seeing her conversation. And the things that she says were so funny to me, and it was just completely who she was. She just kind of laid it all out there, and I love that. And also Lizzo, who represented for, you know, us big, beautiful Black women.

And I was so proud of her for being herself and loving herself in that way and telling the world - because even if you do love yourself, and you know you don't fit the stereotype, I feel like maybe some people may even try to hide it because they don't feel like everybody else will get with it. But she just kind of put it out there. And it inspired me to get on that track and want to continue to help women to bust the barriers down, really.

MARTIN: Talk about taking breaks, too. I'm interested in what role taking these breaks has played, you know, in your life - because, you know, artists, a lot of times, it's - you know, it's feast or famine for artists. On the other hand, the lifestyle is harder than I think a lot of people know that it is. And I just wonder, do these breaks that you have taken - have they helped you? Were they by choice? What role do you think they've played in your art?

SULLIVAN: For me, my breaks - I never intended for them to be as long as they were. Like, I literally thought maybe I took, like, at the most a year. I didn't even think that. I was, just, like, I just need a little break. I'm just going to, you know, chill. And then life kind of gets in the way. You start going through life. And before I know it, it's two, three years. And then before I know it, it's even longer than that.

But they have helped me because the more that I'm living my life and my regular life, the more 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, like, constantly moving and constantly doing things. And so they've helped. But I know that I wouldn't take as long now because of the things that I went through in my personal life with my mom getting cancer a year ago.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

SULLIVAN: And even with COVID, you know, time for me is a little more precious now that I have gone through those things. And I just don't know what tomorrow brings, and I just wouldn't want to lose so much of my time.

MARTIN: Well, again, I'm sorry for that, too. I'm sorry for your mom and what you've gone through. But it does sound like it's been a fertile and rich period for you. It sounds like it's really fed you in a way, even though it's not something you would have chosen.

SULLIVAN: 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 that 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 - like, you appreciate the people in your life. And I appreciate my mother and everything that she's done for me and sacrificed for me, for me to even be here. You know, I learned very much to appreciate it even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OTHER SIDE")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) I can't wait to be rich, want a better life. Diamonds, stars and trips all money can buy. I just want to live on the other side. I just want to live on the other side.

MARTIN: That was singer Jazmine Sullivan talking about her latest album, "Heaux Tales" - and that's spelled H-E-A-U-X tales. This is her Tiny Desk rendition of "The Other Side," which is from that album. You can catch Jazmine Sullivan's NPR Tiny Desk. Just head over to the NPR Music YouTube page.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OTHER SIDE")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) See, I just want to live on the other side. I've got dreams to buy expensive things. And I know that he's out there. So where's my millionaire? See, I've got dreams to buy expensive things. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.