This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s Hot List 2021, in the July–August double issue of the magazine.
Toward the end of 2019, Jazmine Sullivan got some heartbreaking news: Her mother, Pam, a former background singer who once co-managed Jazmine’s music career, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A few months after that shock, the pandemic shut down live music entirely. It was a lot to handle — especially coming on top of the years of trauma that Sullivan had endured from an abusive relationship that ended not long before. But the Philadelphia-born singer and songwriter found a silver lining when executives at her label recommended that she record new music to get ahead of her hard times. For some artists, that might have been a challenge; for Sullivan, 34, getting her emotions out in the form of new songs comes naturally. “In my music, I feel like I can talk about things that I wouldn’t normally have talked about,” she says, “and just be proud of who I am, and own who I am.”
The result of that therapeutic recording process was Heaux Tales, the 14-song EP that Sullivan released to rave reviews this past January, ending the six-year hiatus that followed her Grammy-nominated 2015 LP, Reality Show. The project is organized around a theme of romantic realism, expressed through spoken-word testimonials from the women in Sullivan’s life (including family members and fellow artist Ari Lennox) and bluntly honest songs about relationships and their downsides. On the country-tinged H.E.R. duet “Girl Like Me,” Sullivan offers, “I ain’t wanna be/But you gon’ make a hoe out of me”; on “The Other Side,” Sullivan pleads, “I just wanna be taken care of/’Cause I worked enough, commas over love/I just wanna lay back, spend my baby’s money in his Maybach/I deserve that life.”
“The Other Side” is her current favorite song on an EP that’s full of subtle explorations of the complex and contradictory feelings that can surround sexuality, and proud celebrations of the unspoken power women feel in regard to their bodies. “It was refreshing to write that story,” Sullivan says. “It’s very different from who I am, and my perspective. I feel like people were able to look at what they would consider a gold digger through a different lens after that.”
Richly textured storytelling and uncompromising transparency have been hallmarks of Sullivan’s work for a long time, dating back to “Bust Your Windows” and “Need U Bad,” the pair of 2008 hits that established her as one of R&B’s most fearless and original voices. For more than a decade since then, she has prioritized bracing honesty, and she’s never been one to self-censor herself in her music. “When I’m making music and I’m in a studio, it really feels so personal,” she says. “I’m just literally telling my story, and it’s for me. I know people are going to hear it, but it’s just me getting out these thoughts and these feelings that are inside of me.”
She leaned even further into her own vulnerability and passion throughout Heaux Tales, placing feelings of being disrespected and betrayed next to examples of women being vocal about their needs and wants despite the backlash they face from a patriarchal society. “A subject that came up a lot in the album was women taking up space and taking up agency with their bodies, and not being ashamed to ask for things, the things that they want, their desires,” she says. “I feel like since the beginning of time, women are expected to be and act a certain way, and not really allowed to voice their desires and the things that they want sexually or feel sexually. We’ve grown past that point, and I just thought it was time for people to hear how we feel.”
Heaux Tales is a hit: The EP reached Number Four on the Rolling Stone 200 chart, propelled Sullivan to Number 25 on the Artists 500 the same week, and added to her lifetime total of nearly 1 billion streams. But for Sullivan, what matters most is the overwhelmingly positive response that her latest work has gotten from fans. “I feel like it was the authenticity of the project that resonated so deeply,” she says. “We’ve been silenced for so long as women, and it’s good to hear other people speak it because you feel like you’re being seen. I feel like a lot of women, and especially black women, felt seen with hearing these stories from these women, from my friends, from me.”
That much attention from the world can have another, less welcome side at times. Sullivan says she’s been careful not to let herself get distracted by the pressure of being viewed as a kind of superhuman icon by some of her more ardent fans. “I personally pay attention to myself, and my own feelings, and my own well-being more than the demands of everyone else,” she says. “[Artists] have gifts, and we may be in the spotlight for the time being, but we’re normal people and we all experience the same things. So I think they accidentally put the demand on us because they see us differently than themselves. And that’s just not fair.”
Heaux Tales’ success has given her much to be thankful for, though. So has her mother’s health: Early this year, around the release of the new project, Sullivan shared that her mother had completed a course of chemotherapy, tweeting, “This is a huge milestone! Of all the blessings that are pouring in right now … that is the only thing that matters to me! I’m in tears and in awe of God’s grace and mercy!”
Last month, she shared “Tragic,” a song she described on Twitter as “continuing the conversation around Heaux Tales with some of my dope friends, old and new.” Next, Sullivan is getting back to work on her new full-length album at her home studio in Philadelphia. So far, she says, recording is going well, and she’s in the process of hooking up with producers who she’s loved and looked up to for some time. Though she has no set release date in mind, Sullivan has become more conscious of how she uses her time — and she doesn’t expect a long break between projects like the half-decade ones that separated Heaux Tales, Reality Show, and 2010’s Love Me Back.
“Life is not promised,” she adds. “So I just want to be able to do as much as I can,but in my healthiest state.”