Liner Notes: Tune Into Jazmine Sullivan's 'Reality Show'


In 2011, Jazmine Sullivan rocked the Twitterverse with a jarring tweet that proclaimed she was through with the music industry. She further tweeted that she wanted time to figure out her life outside of a "mike, paper, and pen" and then signed off the 140 character declaration with a Salaam Remi-produced number, cryptically titled, "I'm Not A Robot".

The mic drop was deafening and the shock was inevitable considering Sullivan had a large following of admirers who loved how she burst onto the scene in Missy Elliott's protégé glow and boldly steered away from the usual Hip-Hop trappings of her peers, opting to dig up the roots of Soul's past, and smartly carving out a niche as a miniature Betty Wright, Millie Jackson or -- even more so closely --- a young My Life-era Mary J. Blige. Sullivan's first two albums, 2008's Fearless and 2010's Love Me Back, further punctuated this effort as they both rattled at the cage of maturity, their confessionals of love, lost, and confusion pouring out honest and strong, poising Sullivan as an aware observer towards her growing pains.

To read between the (now deleted) tweet, Sullivan hadn't exactly thrown in her tear-stained towel as the cause for her recoil was that she was embroiled in an abusive relationship, it rendering her mute without "a song to sing" or any tangible form of control when it came to the care and keeping of herself. Thankfully, the Philadelphia songstress has risen from the turmoil, alive and mending, and she has finally found a song (well, several of them) to sing and with the release of her third effort, Reality Show, it's contents bridges her back to the heart of the matter --- which is none other than herself.

From jump, it's obvious that Sullivan is wielding her pen much mightier, as she has formatted Reality Show not just as a catharsis for her own heartbreak, but also as a conceptual narrative that digs into the soap operatic farce of today's reality shows while in turn peels back layers of society's often misbegotten characters. While this may seem a bit heavy-handed, Sullivan doesn't make her confessionals and observations a chore, as she fluidly morphs into an insightful narrator, using her voice as a camera as she pans the scenery, capturing various visages and spectacles, and sometimes searching for herself in these images.


For "#HoodLove" she gnaws on Chuck Harmony's crunchy percussive beats all while packing a .45 heat in her Louis bag, ready to ride and rumble Bonnie style for her Clyde, boasting that she will "rock this bitch till the wheels fall off" sounding like kinfolk to Empire's Cookie with every curt response. For "Veins" she is more so morose, achingly recounting how a woman's addiction to her man tragically erases her own personal being. With a salty jazz scat tongue she lashes out towards her just signed-musician boyfriend on "Brand New", calling him for filth on his treatment of her once more greenbacks get in his pockets, and it's a subject matter that feels lifted from an episode of VH1's Love & Hip-Hop.

On "Silver Lining", Sullivan hones in on a narrative of an unemployed young woman who is struggling to provide for her family and who ends up taking somewhat Set If Off approaches to ease the financial strain, and as the song dissipates she continues to rest in a dreamy gauze of optimism even though police sirens blare ominously in the background. On single, "Mascara" Sullivan steps into the heels of the kept woman, gliding into the soupy synth Key Wane-produced groove, crying for help through a grimaced smile as she plays a woman who takes meticulous care to retain her position. As the song progresses we hear her fear of replacement heighten as she obsesses to get the swoop of the mascara wand just right because "you never know who's watching you".

It's truly fantastic how Sullivan puts scope on these cautionary tales, these personalities, and not once scrutinizes them as an outward society already has, instead choosing to smartly humanize them. We know these women, have been these women, or will become these women, and with Sullivan's sharp perception she makes you feel for these women she's embodied and created.

Also with keen execution is Reality Show's outstanding production quality, which hopscotches around various genres and styles while still retaining seamless transitions. Where the Meek Mill-assisted, "Dumb" sizzles in its Southern Hip-Hop skillet, you have After 7's "Ready Or Not" winding around "Let It Burn". When Sullivan holds a meeting in the ladies room for "Stupid Girl", she riffing on Amy Winehouse-esque vocals warning her fellow dames to be aware of the opposite sex. But then with a flip of her hair, she makes a flashy exit and spins effortlessly around the dancefloor in the dizzying disco jewel of "Stanley", recalling her old school ear on Love Me Back's "Don't Make Me Wait".

Still undeniably present throughout the album's craftwork are those searing vocal chops that always felt more grown than her birthdate allowed. Now with Reality Show, Sullivan's voice is more textured and robust than prior as when she laments on the folksy single, "Forever Don't Last" detailing the destructive relationship she endured through the lattice of guitars you can hear how better controlled and intricate she is with her instrument. It gets even better when the fantastic Gospel swell of "Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)" rumbles in and Sullivan gets to finally have the last word as she rids herself from the pressures of self-doubt, finally marveling at the work of art that is herself. And as she closes her confession session out on the rock n' blues rattle of "If You Dare", chanting over and over: "don't be scared, start living your life/you could be living it right/you should be living it high/you could be living it" you can't help but catch her spirit, as you sing along buoyantly, and feel rejuvenated right alongside her.


After five years of quiet, Reality Show is Sullivan standing up for her life, pushing aside her self-doubts, reveling in the high and lows and embracing them in order to live her best life. She's not necessarily telling us in these songs on how to live life correctly, but rather how one can do it the best way they know how, figuring out the oh so complex equation that life = how you make it. With just twelve tracks, Sullivan has created her most realized and cohesive collection thus far, comprising it of songs that peel back the ugliness and beauty of life and love with an honesty that pegs her as an heir to the thrones of such confessional R&B queens as Blige, Faith Evans, and even Mariah Carey during her days of 'looking in' and reminiscing about past affairs on rainy rooftops.

For women, especially for women of color, there's always this itch to have our stories told and told with keen insight and a tender hand, and yet in rare flashes do we actually get to tell that fully realized autobiography without the distortion of other's interjections. As much as Reality Show is for Sullivan to clear the air for herself, she has made room for the rest of her sisters from other misters to vocally have their say, shoehorning in her aural narrative the stories of women not often discussed. From the side chicks to the ride-or-die dames, to the women who've been battered, burned and bruised and who are just trying to breathe, Reality Show isn't femininity televised --- its uninhibited and live.

While we weren't too sure at first when Sullivan made her brazen first appearance in 2008 swinging her bat and busting windows, now everything matches up --- her dynamic vocalizing, her attention to details, her ability to word a teardrop in a lyric --- all of her talents have finally fallen snugly into place. Though she had it always in her, Jazmine Sullivan can now bask in a realized glow that she is a storyteller for the contemporary set as she shows us the true reality of it all without scripts or filters.

Reality Show is available for purchase and download via iTunes and Amazon, and for streaming via Spotify.
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