As is the natural progression of musical trends, the current roles within the female R&B scene are, with a few exceptions, defined into two distinct camps. One camp keeps it hot and heavy with hard club beats while the singer tries to pull a pectoral muscle singing for the hardest and highest notes they can reach. The other camp has forgone any notion of neo-soul and his simply regressed back to classic soul itself, using their style and song form almost exclusively with little to update but the occassional beat track and the lyrical content. Both camps can provide interesting music but are ultimately seeking the easiest route to stardom, contributing little of substance while following a safe, familiar format that will not present a challenge to either the listener or musician.
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While success is a noble aim for anyone who seeks success in the music industry, ears of descriminating taste find desperation in the midst of such an era of consistency and sameness. Where are the artists who bring something unique and original? Who wants to take a risk and step outside of the norm, who wants to present a challenge?
Jazmine Sullivan, that's who. It's hard to say someone is a 21-year old grizzled veteran of the R&B scene without a snicker but in Jazmine's case it can be said with a straight face. Originally signed as a singer at the age of 15, a sour record deal led to a quick release and a lot of work writing songs for and working with other artists, a career move which has paid dividends for her. Not only has she acquired some skills which have helped further broaden her musical horizons but it has also opened her up to a large and influential group of contacts and supporters in the music business. When she finally signed to a new label there was a measure of relief and excitement; at the same time, there was some apprehension. She had a acquired a taste for a wide range of influences which, while pleasing for critics, could be mainstream suicide; sales, even today, do still count for something.
Nobody thought Jazmine would just shelve her creativity outright for spins on the top 40, but what was it going to take to make an album that meshed her uniqueness and high standards for quality with a healthy sense of listener-friendliness?
Whatever it was supposed to take to pull it off, Jazmine had all of that ability and some more to spare. Fearless is confidence personified. Where some artists work hard to get a record deal so they can get a well-known producer to make them famous, throughout this album Jazmine writes songs and performs them like she's already a star; a good producer is just an accessory. This album shows a singer/songwriter who thrives in challenging environments. She has written a series of songs in distinctly different styles with a good variance of lyrical subjects, and you can hear that a great deal of planning has gone into each song from start to finish, which makes the problem of track order a lot easier in the endgame.
This is all aside of Jazmine's wonderful singing voice, which is a subject unto itself. It has that bright shape of a Beyonce but she refrains from piercing the listener by blowing out a lung, instead preserving the pronounced resonance in her lower register. She has one of those strangely beautiful vibratos, not unlike an Erykah Badu or Chrisette Michele, but again she doesn't let the listener dwell on it for too long (as the latter two are prone to). Where other singers can deliver a good main course, Jazmine's singing is made to give you a great meal.
Bust Your Windows is the lead track and one of Jazmine's first released singles. It's the first hip-hop/R&B song I can recall hearing set to a tango backdrop and it fits perfectly. She slowly builds up a story of breaking the windows out of the car of her ex, who she caught with another woman. She realizes that what she's doing is wrong, that the relief from the pain she feels will be fast and fleeting, but one thing is for certain: a woman scorned, especially this one, is not to be messed with. The musical layers are deceptively intricate, with a unison string/woodwind line that continually evolves throughout the song and a very simple vocal harmony mix that moves into a call and response against Jazmine's pleas. Neither of these facets scream for attention but repeated listens bear out just how well they frame this excellent song.
Need U Bad is Jazmine's most well-known single, which features the assistance one of Jazmine's most ardent supporters: female rap mogul Missy Elliott. The song is laid out on a dancehall reggae rhythm while Jazmine ruminates on how to get back the one that she let get away. Some clever vocal harmonies sell the song as something nearing authentic reggae before the chorus breaks into a straight four contemporary R&B groove, where her lead line and the vocal line bounce off of each other in one of those rare moments where the planned has an air of thrilling spontinaeity. The dancehall comes back in at the bridge, where Jazmine leads a call and response proper that's honestly one of the most enthralling listening experiences I've had this year. Let there be no mistake, Jazmine is bursting at the seams with talent, but it's the air of sincerity that sells this song over everything else.
Lions, Tigers & Bears is another one of Jazmine's quirky excursions that takes you in an unusual (and beautiful) direction. Where some rappers and singers will imply use beats that imply a 3/4 beat while playing in 4/4, she goes past any notion of implication by writing and performing an R&B song as a waltz(!). In fact, this song is more about the waltz than it is R&B and the orchestral arrangement is nothing short of fantastic. While Jazmine sings about everything she's not scared of but that one thing, a string section plucks softly on the one, accompanying a harp that carries the lead while a violin section fills the higher ends with long tones that float along the rhythm. Going into the bridge the orchestra blossoms with sound as piccolos subtly signal the pending rise and a french horn section blazes a majestic harmonic backdrop behind Jazmine that makes your skin tingle. That is all an aside to Jazmine's personal effort, which is tremendous. It takes some serious songwriting and vocal chops to pull this off and she did it with near ease. This is her dark horse song, one that may never get radio play but is deserving of being called one of the best on the album.
And in a few short seconds the next song Call Me Guilty stops the dreamy and wistful dead in its tracks. It's back to reality, and a cold one at that. The song is about a woman in an abusive relationship who has hit her breaking point, she's reasoned out her options and is left with only one: kill him before he kills me. It's a driving song set to a hard rock rhythm, a droning bass line and a lonesome single-note piano line. The music explodes in the chorus with a string and horn section behind Jazmine's angry lyrics. Not only is this a power track for those who have survived an abusive relationship, it's also a chilling reminder for any listener who is an abuser to mend their ways: if you do unto others, you never know when (and how) they will do unto you.
Missy calls out in the intro to Dream Big using a line typically reserved for her own songs (if that's not a sign of faith in one's work, I don't know what is). It's an out and out Euro techno club track, complete with a clever cache of synth lines via Daft Punk's Veridis Quo and an assortment of gimmicky techno sounds that just don't sound gimmicky; Jazmine just understands that her credibility is in her authenticity and she doesn't miss the slightest detail. The song itself is about taking advantage of opportunities when they come to you, about being ready to go when the time comes. The fact that she manages to take on a genre seemingly foreign to her talents in such a convincing manner is a testament to what happens when you dream big.
Where most albums will tend to peter out in the back half, Jazmine saves the big guns for the final three songs. Fear is a work of creative genius and on this one Jazmine gets a major assist. The wild ears of Salaam Remi not only somehow saw that Anne Dudley's piano outro from The Art of Noise's classic Beatbox could make for a great backdrop, he also saw fit to borrow the hook from Stevie Wonder's I Was Made to Love Her for the vamp; it's an even better mesh than you could imagine if you're familiar with both songs. This is the song where Jazmine really lets loose with more of her vocal range, starting the first verse in her deep lower octave (with a voice so much like Missy's it's scary) before letting herself take off into the stratosphere while she talks about all the things that she's afraid of. And even though she's afraid, she acknowledges her fears and faces them. Quite a piece of prophesy given the task she laid for herself throughout this album.
In Love With Another Man is a true slice of classic R&B, a barnburner ballad complete with those gospel inflections we all know and love. The overall musical arrangement is a thing to behold but the piano arrangement is stunningly well written as it carries virtually the entire weight of the rhythm section throughout the song. The bass, a pipe organ and a tympani provide fills that give the song just the right touch (the tympani in particular is impressive in how it is used). And Jazmine really lays it on the line with her lyrics and vocals. Her vocals start out calm and restrained as she tries to let go of a good man who would never do her wrong, but the tension builds and she soars with release in the bridge as she sings about the man who, for all of his faults, she's in love with:
But when I'm with him, but when I'm with him
Hey when I'm with him, ain't nobody else like him
And I'm so sorry, do you hear me I'm so sorry
But I love that man, I love that man
He ain't always right, but he's just right for me
For what little justice I can do them in being seen and not heard, her lyrics capture not only the beauty of love but the beauty of faith, and her vocal performance on this song is the stuff legends are made of. It's admittedly hard to anoint someone so young but this song makes an extremely compelling case.
The closer Switch! takes you completely in the opposite direction from In Love With Another Man. A light-hearted and sassy piece of pop about a double date that finds her more attracted to her date's best friend than him, Jazmine switches gears with her vocalese yet again and takes command of this song in a way that lets you know to expect the unexpected from her. She sounds right at home in this setting and the lyrics are such a clear image of her personality: sharp, blunt, poignant and even funny in a cute, sassy way.
Missy again makes an appearance to deliver the hook for this song...it's been a long time since we've seen Missy throw herself behind a musician to this degree. I have to think that this goes beyond a prolonged case of hesitancy after the tragic end of Aaliyah's life; I think Missy the singer sees some of herself in Jazmine and seeing her succeed is a form of redemption for a career path that has seen her largely leave her singing behind. No matter the reason, Missy's involvement and determination here is much more impressive than it has been in the past couple of years.
This is the kind of debut album every artist dreams of. Jazmine's skill is so highly developed in so many areas of music and her conviction is so strong that this album simply overwhelms every R&B offering I've heard so far this year. This album isn't just good enough to launch a major coup in the new R&B artist categories come awards season, it can easily compete for best female R&B artist and best R&B album. Some artists would make you hesitate at the thought of the sophomore slump but given the talent and desire showcased here, I can't wait to hear what she does next, slump or not.