Jazmine Sullivan: Let’s Put on a Show

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Jazmine Sullivan doesn’t expect her man to the tell the truth. She’s an R&B singer; his lies fuel her art. But she draws the line at inept duplicity, demanding “If you gon’ lie, then at least be good” before a martial chorale once again chants the song title: “Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!” Don’t hate the game. Hate the fool who don’t know how to play.

In 2015, doubts arise as to whether music remains the best arena for that game, doubts the title of Sullivan’s newest album, Reality Show, acknowledges. Pop has risen far above our lives, and celebrity superheroines rule fiefdoms, their minions no longer winking fondly when they use uncomfortably supercharged metaphors like “queen” and “goddess.” TV is where human-sized drama rages, where stagy yet raw conflicts between women emerge as though via direct visual feed from our subconscious. The intimate yet mediated world of R&B, where desires and pain are modulated through hook and rhythm and timbre and craft, can feel quaint and distant up against this competition.

Reality Show takes up that challenge. Sullivan breezes though a broad range of roles with a versatility that might feel dilettantish if her commitment to each wasn’t total. On “Brand New” she’s a hot young rapper’s girl unsure of his how fame will change her life; on “Stanley” she’s a neglected housewife. She reluctantly dabbles in street crime on “Silver Lining,” then turns ride-or-die for her man on “#hoodlove.” In each song, we can imagine our own caricature from the outside, then we can hear Sullivan humanize her through monologues too private for any Bravo camera

Then there’s  “Mascara.”

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 it coming if I keep my body tight

There’s a new disparaging slang word every day for the self-commodifying hustler here, but she’s no ratchet cartoon, just a matter-of-fact operator. Sullivan doesn’t strive to make us like her, doesn’t mask her contempt for the less savvy. A tinge of concern for how long she can pull this off may abrade her voice but no moral doubt or rationalization intrudes. The track itself is unrushed and opulent, the melody lines varied and elastic. An anthem for an age where opportunity dwindles and keeping up appearances matters all the more, “Mascara” distills this jumble of anxiety and expectation into a single pointed question: “Don’t I deserve to be privileged?” Answer carefully.

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