Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales Harnesses The Power of Conversation

Photo by Taylor Baldwin

Jazmine Sullivan has engaged in conversations that would become the stuff of her songs since childhood. Growing up “so super Christian” in one of Philadelphia’s historic mansions, the 33-year-old singer says she often felt isolated from her peers. While other kids lived close to one another in the inner city, Sullivan spent much of her time at home, alone with her thoughts, talking to herself. Those lonely conversations (along with some fantasy supplied by Disney movies) would become the basis for her storytelling—a craft she witnessed firsthand from her mother, a playwright, and grandmother, a poet.

But when her debut album Fearless released in 2008, it was her voice that made the biggest impact. In fact, Sullivan’s career has been marked by her voice—one that’s so singular in the R&B spectrum that it’s gained her 12 Grammy nominations. And her latest album, Heaux Tales, released on January 8 2021, has put her storytelling into sharper focus.

The project features stories told by her tight-knit friend group, whom she invited on the record (along with Ari Lennox and some family members) to provide their own perspectives on womanhood in interludes named after the people who tell the stories. (Lennox’s bit, which tells of being hypnotized by a man’s sexual prowess, is called Ari’s Tale, while her mother’s lively conversation with friends during a dinner party is named Donna’s Tale.)

Less than two weeks after its release, the album had already hit no. 1, and landed her a spot at the Super Bowl, performing the National Anthem with country artist Eric Church.

Riding the success of Heaux Tales, Sullivan will take the record in yet another direction—she’s turning the concept into a conversation series called Girl Talk. Details are still being ironed out, but the framework is this: Sullivan will sit down for dinner with the women featured on Heaux Tales and delve deeper into their stories. On a Zoom call from her home in Philadelphia, Sullivan discussed with W magazine her high-profile fans and her plans for the series, which will take the form of a conversation in real time.

Have you been following the Internet’s reception of Heaux Tales?

I’ve been watching Twitter and Instagram. I’m not proud of that, though, just ‘cause you can get consumed with everybody’s opinions, and if you come across something that’s not good, it weighs on you. But the response has been so amazing. I’m super surprised that it’s getting this kind of feedback.

So you’re aware how nuts everyone has gone for this album.

Yeah. I feel like people are having real revelations after listening to it. The stories that I’m hearing from those revelations—my DMs are so crazy. I got people like, “Girl, I got a heaux tale for you, I got a whole book of heaux tales.” And they tell me about them! Then there are people being like, “I realized some things from this tale or from this song, and it’s helped me not feel shame about the things that I have experienced in my life.” Like, “This project helped me so I don’t have to feel bad about the things I’ve done or what I’ve gone through,”—and that we’ve all gone through. It brings a sense of community with women, and especially Black women.

My best girlfriends are the reason I’m who I am. They love me and build me up and check me when I need to be checked. That’s what this project is: your girlfriends, put on a record, having these conversations that we’ve had since we were in high school. These are conversations all women have in private; we didn’t necessarily feel like we could talk about them, that anybody cared to hear them, or that people wanted to know more about us, how multi-faceted we are, how layered we are as women. We aren’t just one way—we’re every way, all at the same time. We’re everything. We’re every woman, okay?

I’m curious about the conversation between your mother and the group of women on Donna’s Tale. Is that you laughing in the foreground in the beginning?

No, I wasn’t there. My mom hosted dinner at her house and had her sisters, friends, and friends of the family over. I was actually out with my girlfriends at that time. So we were having our own separate conversation. What’s on Donna’s Tale was a grown-up conversation. I know that we’re grown, but these were the grown grown women. I’m not even sure it would have went the way it did if we were there. They were in a place where they could be free and express themselves the way they wanted to.

Were you present for some of these types of grown conversations as a kid, or in high school?

I wasn’t present for a lot of her grown-up talks. She was good about keeping me from knowing things that she felt were too grown. But I had an aunt who talked to me like I was her girlfriend, even when I was very young. Certain families have one aunt like that—you know, they’re super free with the things that they say.

The fun aunt.

Exactly. She was the fun aunt to me. I was mature at a young age, so she felt like she could gossip with me about friends, family, church members. But my mom didn’t play that.

Is there one tale from the album that stuck with you?

There were two. There was Amanda’s Tale, because I felt like she was so open and vulnerable. Most people don’t go that deep or want to expose that part of themselves to the world, which is what I was asking her to do. But it’s so real—to want to be loved and trying to figure out how to get that. Also, there was Precious’s Tale, because I’ve never lived my life that way. I was always of the mind that I have to love who I’m with, and love conquers all. You realize, growing up, that’s not always the case. I felt like it gave a deeper look into the mindset of that type of woman—who we as a society probably judge and look at as a gold digger. Her tale let us know her motivations: if you grow up not having anything, you know what it feels like to want and to need. As you get older, you try to navigate that and figure out how you don’t end up in that position again.

The interludes on the album reminded me of the ones on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Out of curiosity, were you listening to that album at all when you were writing Heaux Tales and if not, what were you listening to?

I wasn’t actually listening to anything while writing Heaux Tales. But The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill changed my life when I was a kid, I think it came out when I was 11. Lauryn just schooled me so much in the matter of a project. Hearing that comparison blows my mind because I loved that album growing up and I’m shocked that people are referring to my music, that it’s making them feel that way. But also, I understand. And I credit that to the tales. These are stories that have been muted and people have not talked about, or even wanted to hear. Maybe people are in a different place where they’re open to hearing them—and for women especially, they want to hear it. They want their story told.

Bust Your Windows is largely regarded as your breakout hit. But whenever I think of you, I think of Lions, Tigers, and Bears. It’s such a vulnerable song. Can you describe what headspace you were in when you wrote it?

I actually had a conversation with someone I was dating at the time, and he said those exact words to me: “Just because you love somebody doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be with them.” That was a heartbreaking time because as a kid, you think, if you love somebody, surely love trumps all. You’ll be with them and you live happily ever after. And that’s not the case.

Heaux Tales does feel like a much more realistic and mature approach to love and romance.

I’ve definitely grown up a lot since I first came out—that was a long time ago. I’ve had different experiences since then. I have a boyfriend, we’ve been together for three years. We live together and we have a dog and he has a kid. Every project I put out is about my life at that moment.

It sounds like you’re surrounded by so many characters, but your music is so deeply personal. Have you ever made a song that was from the perspective of someone else?

Yeah, Mascara—that was on my last project. That was not me at all. I couldn’t relate to that. But I was fascinated by that type of woman because I remember being on Instagram years ago. I was looking at all these video girls. I kept finding their pages and looking at their lives. And I was like, dang, look at that, look where they are today. Now, thinking about it, I’m like, who knows? They probably weren’t even all that famous. But I was fascinated at that time, and I wanted to bring that story to life. Now, with Heaux Tales, what I wanted to do was not just tell that story, but give some depth about why these women could possibly be the way they are.

Whose idea was it to start Girl Talk?

That was mine. I thought it would be fun and cute to talk about the stuff that we talk about as women around a dinner table. I just think the conversations are so funny, but they can also be deep—you gain so much wisdom and knowledge from them. You can get everything from talking to a group of women.

For me, it was an extension of the record, visually showing what it feels like to be in that space, all the emotions you go through while talking. You literally go from laughing your butt off to crying and exposing truths about yourself, brought to tears.

Will it be on Instagram Live, or some other format?

I actually don’t know that part of it, the details, just yet.

I could see it being a podcast or a live series when we can do things like that again.

Definitely. The thing about the project is that you can go in so many different directions with it. I wrote Issa Rae on Instagram a week ago and put out a request for her to produce a short film about the heaux tales. She responded right away.

Will you feature every woman who was on the album?

No. There will be some of my girlfriends from the album, Ari Lennox is in it, and then there are some girls that I’ve been stalking on Instagram for two years now. I’ve just fallen in love with them and I wanted to invite them over and have dinner with them.

Would you ever consider bringing on some of the women who DM’ed you about their realizations after having listened to Heaux Tales?

Possibly, if we did a Heaux Tales volume two, which could happen because we got some features on the way. Mary J. Blige responded to a comment on Instagram that someone had wrote—they @’ed me and her saying that she should do Price Tags. And I was like, “I would pass out.” Mary replied and said “Say less. Send me the record.” Cardi B said she wants to add her story—she wants to add her heaux tale.

Cardi B should absolutely be on Girl Talk.

Oh, definitely. She can have her own show.

Are you currently working on any new music?

No, not yet. I’m just basking in this project. I could not have imagined that I would be singing at the Super Bowl. I literally never imagined that. And three weeks after I put my project out, this has happened. At this point in my life, I’m trying to be in the moment. When it’s time to start a new project, I’ll be in a space where I’m open enough to just start that.

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