On 'Heaux Tales,' Jazmine Sullivan lets the stories unfold

MESFIN FEKADU
·6 min read

NEW YORK (AP) — At dinner with a friend, Jazmine Sullivan broke down with tears flowing from her eyes.

She had been dealing with a severe case of writer’s block and unsure where to turn or how to move past the drought.

“I was crying to one of my girlfriends... like, ‘Girl, I can’t even write.’ That’s how I express myself. That’s how I communicate, and I can’t do that,” Sullivan recalled. “I felt so stuck in that moment.”

Sullivan, a fierce songwriter who has not only written her own R&B hits that range from seething to sweet, has also penned songs for Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Monica and other R&B stars.

To take the pressure off, she decided to produce an EP instead of an album — “it felt easier to look at it that way” — and she came up with a concept to help the project flow easy. It resulted in “Heaux Tales."

“It was painful. It was not easy to come up with this,” Sullivan said.

But her efforts were worth it. “Heaux Tales” has been lauded for its exploration of feminism, sexuality, classism and body-shaming. It debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s all-genre 200 albums chart — a career high for Sullivan, who dropped her debut in 2008.

Some of the songs came in bits and pieces, with Sullivan unsure if they were good enough or worth finishing, including “Bodies,” “The Other Side” and “Lost One,” which her mom convinced her to complete after hearing it.

In between those songs are interludes — which Sullivan calls the “meat” of the project — of the singer and her girlfriends freely chatting about one-night stands, drunken escapades and bad breakups.

“Usually people don’t want to hear interludes but these kind of hit home in a way; they were a voice to the voiceless, really,” the Philadelphian said. “The topics that were talked about were things that people want to say but don’t necessarily get to say on a bigger platform.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sullivan talked about writer's block, men’s reactions to her album and possibly working with Issa Rae.

AP: How scary was it to go through writer’s block when that’s a big part of your artistry?

Sullivan: My songs are really my form of communication. If you want to get to know me, listen to a lot of my songs and you’ll get to know the nuances of my personality, stuff that I may not show if you’re just meeting me. I’m private, but I spill my guts out in my music. Because that was my therapy release, it was hard not to have that. I didn’t know where to turn to.

AP: What made you come up with this particular concept for the EP?

Sullivan: I wanted to share the behind-the-scenes stories that I have with my girlfriends that I’ve had all my life since we were in high school. I felt like it was so much wisdom in the years that we’ve really grown up together. I also felt like these are stories that you don’t hear a lot about. You don’t hear Black women’s stories. You don’t know a lot about Black women and the many sides there are to Black women. I just wanted to share our personal stories. I didn’t know that it would resonate with people as much as it did, but I understand why. My story is everyone’s story. My girlfriend’s story is all of our stories. I’m just glad that it’s meaning more to people than just a project. It’s not just songs that people like. I feel like it’s transforming some women and definitely helping people to self-reflect and grow and feel strong and love themselves more.

AP: “Mascara” from your last album, 2015’s “Reality Show,” felt like it could have easily fit on this EP.

Sullivan: Yeah, “Mascara” could have definitely lived on this project. I would say it’s probably the beginning of some of the aspects of the characters on this particular project. When I was writing “Mascara,” I was on Instagram and I was looking at the lives of the Instagram girls, kind of in awe of all the things they were afforded because of their beauty. I just wanted to tell their story. I thought it was interesting. What I feel like happens on this project is you kind of go into depth, why that particular woman is the way that she is and why her mind is the way she is. A lot is probably based on the fact that a lot of women who grow up not having anything and wanting a better life and not being able to afford it and lacking, they try to figure out how to survive, how they will never end up in that space — that’s what motivates them. That’s the part of the story that we miss. We go straight to judging a woman and calling her a gold digger and not respecting her.

AP: What has been the reaction from men? Have some said they’ve learned about women from listening to the album, and have some dissed the album and chatter?

Sullivan: Yes, I’ve gotten both. There were some men that were able to hear the project and have learned more about women. Some men who are like, “I’ve been on that wave anyway. I totally understand what y’all feeling and am in total support of y’all owning and taking agency of your space and who you are and loving who you are.” There are some men who are very basic and are like, “Girl, you ain’t gotta be no ho, you ain’t gotta talk about being no ho.” I’m like, “Sir, I’m not responding to you because you’re not in tune with me. You’re not listening.”

AP: You and Issa Rae traded tweets about a possible visual to go with the album. What’s happening with that?

Sullivan: I wanted Black Twitter to kind of bully her into doing it (laughs). But they didn’t even have to bully her because she wanted to do it anyway! Thank God. We exchanged numbers and we talked on the phone. ...I think she’s the perfect fit for it because she has a way of being in tune with her characters, especially women and showing the depth of a woman. She really gets us as Black women because she is one.