Jazmine Sullivan took a break from music in 2011 to attend to real life. She'd become stuck in an abusive relationship, and with no desire to keep recording, she prematurely announced she was retiring. In mid-November last year, she came back and performed to a generous crowd at New York's Gramercy Theater, debuting the stark, slow-tempo, highly empathetic "Mascara," a song about a woman's pressure to stay physically presentable for the world, just in case.
Part of the chorus: "I keep mascara in my pocket if I'm running to the market/ 'Cause you never know who's watching you." You do never know who's watching. Welcome to life. Even as reality TV has entered into the realm of unending fake-ness, the people who participate in them are still endlessly entertaining and touchable. Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan's powerful third album, great R&B, feels similarly intimate and public, like a universal confessional. Reality producers love to justify shenanigans by saying their show is just a vessel for what's really happening in the world and actually, a lot of that is true—it's given tons of women and minorities who've never seen themselves on TV a chance to tell a story that's messy and partially damaging but definitely more complicated than a hot take. There are some women who do it for money or love or for men who don't deserve them, and there are women who watch and feel a weird kinship. On Reality Show, Sullivan sings from all of their perspectives.
The confessional itself is a masterful first-person storytelling tool that lets whoever's narrating tell a convenient truth. It gives people an incredible sense of power. A good amount of the lyrics on Reality Show sound like the silly stuff Joseline Hernandez might spout in one of her Love & Hip-Hop confessionals while making jerky hand gestures and head movements:
"Yeah, my hair and my ass fake, but so what/ I get my rent paid with it/ And my tits get me trips to places I can't pronounce right/ He said he'd keep coming if I keep my body tight/ And them bitches stay mad 'cause I'm living the life." —"Mascara"
"Fuck you and then the new crew you rolling with/ They don't know you like I do" —"Brand New"
"I'm a good citizen, I'm not a criminal, but I ain't holding the bulk of the minimum/ I got kids that I gotta support/ But doing this was my last resort" —"Silver Lining"
"I'ma ride this bitch till the wheels fall off/ 'Cause when my baby need me, he know that I got him." —"#HoodLove"
Whether you've been in any of the positions Sullivan is narrating or not (i.e. never dated a rapper before he had a fresh label deal and image to protect?), you've seen it. If the point is whether you should listen to this album or not, the answer is yes. More than once, yes. It's funny how it's familiar. Other than the final track, "If You Dare," too rose-colored, there's not much I don't like or that I'd toss. "Veins" is the standard drug/addiction analogy song (must we always do this?), but she at least turns it into a sensual experience. It's clear from the storylines that Sullivan is alluding more to relatively "lower brow" shows like Love & Hip-Hop or the Real Housewives franchise than, like, Honey Boo Boo, but we all know fuckery comes in all forms. In a recent press round, she told Billboard, "Whatever you have that's not quite right, you don't want anybody to know. I'm fascinated with the fact that people kind of put it all out there."
Much of this album is also obviously autobiographical, so it's not all about other voices. But she is a good conduit for the grimier perspectives because she's both observing and been there. She knows how to express being bothered and weak in the moment. You feel her emotion the most when her vocals go into that operatic zone that comes out like a gush of weariness. It's sometimes suffocating. Listen to one of her best songs, "10 Seconds," and you get the urgency. On Reality Show, that awesomeness is more contained and controlled. Listen to her deeper, snarling tones on the almost Western-sounding "Stupid Girl," where she sings, "A trainwreck headed for us/ But we never think of running/ So which one are you? Because I know who I am."
The way she sings, even in her vulnerable moments, I used to get the feeling she was the type who played the fool less than others and that putting up with bullshit for too long wasn't her thing. She's sung before about deserving love as a reward for past pain and good behavior. But she also has a revenge fantasy about grabbing a glock to kill an abuser. "Bust Your Windows" was the ultimate antidote for agitated women dealing with infidelity. Mine was a silly assumption, though. There's an Ebony interview from December where Sullivan reflects on the abusive relationship that kept her out of the studio. "It kind of took the fun out of everything for me," she says. She eventually got out of that. "It taught me what not to accept in the name of love. I did everything and I stayed because I thought I was supposed to, because I loved him and wanted to make it work," she says. How stupid.
Image via Facebook/Jazmine Sullivan