Each of the four albums that soulful contralto vocalist, composer and producer Jazmine Sullivan has crafted since 2008’s “Fearless” has been a work of emotionally frank and revelatory lyrics. All also have received Grammy nominations. Her latest, 2021’s “Heaux Tales,” finds the Philadelphia native pushing herself vocally and stretching her storytelling into more arduous terrain, revealing struggles related to abuse, regret, sex, shame, money, infatuation, evolution, revolution and agency. Musically, it’s Sullivan’s most minimalist-sounding collection yet. “Heaux Tales” earned recognition in three categories at this year’s Grammy Awards — set for April 3 at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas — where it’s up for best R&B album as well as R&B song and R&B performance for “Pick Up Your Feelings.”
Sullivan talked to Variety from her hometown of Philadelphia — where she continues to live and record — while putting the finishing touches on February’s expanded “Heaux Tales, Mo’ Tales: The Deluxe,” which features appearances by singer Ari Lennox and “Insecure” creator Issa Rae.
There are six years between “Heaux Tales” and your previous release. How did this album compare in terms of how it came to you and how you put it together?
Jazmine Sullivan: Usually when I write, the lyrics come to me as if I was speaking in tongues, all at once. This project, though, was more difficult. And painful for me as a writer. I was shocked. It came a verse here, a verse there, for months at a time. I got it though. It was a labor of love.
How do the additional tracks of the deluxe edition build on the initial narrative?
The conversation continues. I started with the idea of having open conversations as Black women, and you can’t put all of that into one project. There’s always more to talk about.
Much of the album focuses on the whys of these women. What’s the thinking behind that?
The whys in life are so important. Today’s society, so many people fixate on the whats. What are you doing? What’s happened? That end result. The ‘why’ for me is the real story — it’s where the important stuff lies. Why we are the way we are. Why is how we get to any destination.
It’s one year since “Heaux Tales” release. Considering it’s been analyzed for its powerfully nuanced narratives, what can you say about your intentionality, your sharing of other women’s realities and its evolution from the start?
I always sought to tell my stories, and other people’s stories. They just weren’t my girlfriends’ stories before this. For this project, this was what I learned from my particular group of girlfriends – all so amazing, immeasurable and beautiful. I wanted to share it, and not keep all of their good stuff to myself.
Do you think you’ll continue to expand “Heaux Tales” as a living, breathing work?
I’m not sure. Yet. I’d like to move it into another arena, like film, where you could see new conversations and stories.
You talk about the strong women you know as contemporaries and spoke with for “Heaux Tales.” What about the women of your youth? Of your family?
My grandmother was a church poet with a funny way of saying things. I got her humor as, many times, I write in a cheeky way. My mom was a playwright who created characters and could see the big picture. She helped me see that… She even convinced me “Heaux Tales” was worth continuing when it got hard. I finished it because of her.”
You’ve become a role model for speaking these truths. Are you cool with that?
That in-and-of-itself is crazy to me. I’m very vocal about insecurities, how I feel about myself, so it blows my mind that women are looking at me in a certain way, grateful for the things I’m saying.
After “Heaux Tales” acclaim, you performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl LV and sang Jonathan Larson’s music for “Tick, Tick… BOOM!,” at director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s request. How has the high bar of “Heaux Tales” changed how you do things?
I don’t feel like the bar is too high (Laughs). I’m just excited to see where I go next. And I’ve always been choosy about the things I do.
You’ve been in this business for nearly two decades and remain a top name in R&B. Has anyone else’s vibe or sound impressed or inspired you?
Honestly, women in the spotlight now who are really vocal about who they are. Women who are completely themselves, they break through with me. That’s Cardi B. That’s Lizzo. Women who have agency over themselves. I’ve always wanted to be like that. But when I first came out in 2008, that wasn’t a thing. … The women today — their genuine love for themselves — inspire me.
The big Grammy question: what does it mean to you?
Not a lot of things matter with all that I’ve been through. I feel as if I have always gotten acclaim from people that I care about and respect. I also treasure the things that truly matter. In my older age, that means the most. Like, I’ve been able to perform with Stevie Wonder. Girl, that’s a big deal. That’s the reward. If I win, though, that would be nice. Not just for me, but for underdogs. That’s why people are rooting for me. I’ve been at this for a minute and always put my best foot forward.