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NPR Music's album of the year: 'Heaux Tales' by Jazmine Sullivan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All year, our friends at NPR Music spend an enviable amount of time sifting through new releases, looking for the best of the best. Now it's time to look back. Which albums spoke to this moment, this year, with the most clarity and understanding? Well, one stands out above the rest. NPR Music's album of the year is "Heaux Tales" from the Philadelphia-based singer Jazmine Sullivan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICK UP YOUR FEELINGS")

JAZMINE SULLIVAN: (Singing) You say that I've been acting different, yeah. Funny how I finally flipped the script on you when you the one who's double dipping, yeah. You so sloppy, how I caught you slipping up. You're off the lease, run me my keys. No more popping up to hit it, yeah. I ain't even got the miles to trip on you.

CORNISH: It's an album that, as NPR's Sidney Madden writes, breathes life into themes of love, sex and loss, granting grace to those who are usually stereotyped and disrespected. And Sidney is here to talk more. Welcome back, Sid.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: I don't even know if we need to do the rest of the interview after that line. That is a great review of this album. For listeners who aren't familiar with Sullivan's past work, tell us a little bit about her.

MADDEN: So Jazmine Sullivan, she's a contemporary R&B powerhouse - and I cannot state that enough - powerhouse hailing from Philly. She's been in the game for a long time, and people who are even not big fans of her probably know her single "Bust Your Windows" from her 2008 debut album, "Fearless."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUST YOUR WINDOWS")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) I bust the windows out your car. And no, it didn't mend my broken heart.

MADDEN: And that was kind of the song that solidified her as an amazing, incisive songwriter and vocalist, and it earned her her first Grammy nominations all the way back in 2008. And she's definitely an R&B mainstay, and she's influenced so many other artists in the R&B space since coming out in the early 2000s. But she's also known as a recluse. She takes many years off in between albums. And in fact, "Heaux Tales" is her first album in six years.

CORNISH: So this is her first album in some years. And looking at the track listing, it's a lot of women's names, and I gather that there's kind of a storytelling element to it. Can you talk about this album?

MADDEN: Yeah, absolutely. What makes "Heaux Tales" so unique in Jazmine's discography and arguably her magnum opus, even after the six years off, is it has such a maternal and communal element to it. This project includes six spoken-word interludes that are recorded from her friends, her sister friends, Jazmine's godmothers, her aunts - basically the Black women in her life who make Jazmine Jazmine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTOINETTE'S TALE")

SULLIVAN: Like, our society teaches them to be so wrapped up in themselves and their own conquests that they forget we're sexual beings as well.

MADDEN: And each one of these women in their tales, they share a specific point of view, a singular yet interconnected stories about sex, love, relationship, grief, loss - all of that. And they breathe new life and create a safe space for women to express themselves fully, no matter how flawed or flagrant that may be. And it really combats a world that often erases Black womanhood to stereotypes like the welfare queen or a gold digger or a ghetto girl or a corporate baddie. So these songs and these interludes, they combat all of that flattening in a way that feels intentional, that feels concise, that feels communal.

CORNISH: One song that may be worth pointing out is the song "On It."

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZMINE SULLIVAN'S "ON IT")

CORNISH: I know all of these are your favorite, but can you talk a little bit (laughter) about - what are we hearing in this one?

MADDEN: Absolutely. They truly are all of my favorites, but "On It" is definitely a gem in there. So "On It" comes right after the song "Put It Down" in the sequencing and right after the interlude, "Ari's Tale," which is spoken by a fellow R&B singer, Ari Lennox. And it truly unpacks the layers of what it means to be hypnotized by a man purely sexually who you know you have no business of wasting your time on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON IT")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) I need more than a text message. You gon' have to pull off something impressive.

MADDEN: Hypnotized, magnetized - you get what I'm saying, Audie.

CORNISH: Yeah, you've underscored it well.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But who among us has not found ourselves...

MADDEN: Right. Whomst (ph) among us has not been? Yes. But what I love so much about these interludes and these songs, as Jazmine said in our conversation, it unpacks the why. It impacts the deeper motivations and the deeper rationalizations that go into these behaviors that, maybe on the surface, we as Black women trying to move through this world can't always explain and also get proverbially crucified for and get flattened and get stigmatized and stereotyped for.

CORNISH: You actually - as you mentioned, you had a conversation with Sullivan for All Songs Considered. And there's this moment from that conversation that really stuck out for me. Here's a clip from the podcast.

MADDEN: It's a constant struggle to love yourself, but you just got to - you got to show up for yourself every day, and that's what I'm trying to do. And that's what I want for women. Like, you don't have to be perfect, but just show up. Show up.

CORNISH: How much is this the message of the album?

MADDEN: I think it's a huge undercurrent of the album. I think it's a throughline that is part of the safe space that she creates - having the courage to bare your soul, having the courage to be vulnerable with your friends, with your community, and then having that reverberate out into your own perceptions of yourself and into the ways you show up for yourself and show up in this world, fully fledged and unabashedly. I think it's - if we're talking about ingredients of it, I would say it's 50% that and 50% a love letter and a time capsule to the women who've given Jazmine the strength to show up for herself thus far in her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZMINE SULLIVAN'S "GIRL LIKE ME")

CORNISH: Do you mind if I ask - in this year, where people have talked so much about the effect of, say, like, TikTok on music and how music is developed, what makes this album kind of the best of the year to you?

MADDEN: Yeah, that's a great question and a great observation. In a year when a lot of music has been made with the intention of, let's say, going viral on TikTok or having some type of fleeting hype or clout or fame associated with it, I think what really stands out about this album is that Jazmine is emerging and giving us something fully realized and conceptual, considerate.

CORNISH: Yeah. Even the idea of a concept album in this day and age feels...

MADDEN: I know. When we live in a time of streaming where, literally, it is a numbers game and people are looking for track lists that are 20 songs long just in hopes of getting one viral song or one snippet of a viral song on TikTok that can be associated with a challenge, it's beautiful that, as an artist, she's not subscribing to the fad of the moment, and she's creating something that is going to stand the test of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL LIKE ME")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) Why you don't love me no more?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sidney Madden talking about NPR Music's album of the year - "Heaux Tales" by Jazmine Sullivan. And you can hear Sidney's full conversation with Sullivan on the All Songs Considered podcast. Sid, thanks so much.

MADDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL LIKE ME")

SULLIVAN: (Singing) What you asked, I would've given. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.