Jazmine Sullivan’s sophomore album, Love Me Back, occupies an odd place in the pop R&B landscape. On the one hand, it’s neo-soul; on the other, it doesn’t suck.
Neo-soul typically has the usual weaknesses of retro-nostalgia—that is, it's always semi-embalmed in the preserving fluid of its own insufferable smugness. Its one gimmick is having no gimmicks, framing the familiar sincerity of its own emoting in the familiar sincerity of the same three or four hooks that are supposed to evoke the 1960s or 70s but in fact trudged tiredly out of the 90s and then wouldn’t leave.
Sullivan isn’t entirely free of this line of mediocrity: “Excuse Me,” is thoroughly rote, the sort of back-in-the-day ballad that the track’s producer, Missy Elliott, never would have actually committed years ago. “Stuttering” is more of the same; with Sullivan stuttering the lyrics with uncharismatic, over-determined sincerity that is supposed to demonstrate the depth of her emotion but really only shows that writer/producer Tobias Gad needs a swift kick in the pants. And while “Famous” is refreshing in its lyrical ambition, that ambition does not extend to actually writing a hook that you even remember.
So there are problems. But they are not, surprisingly, crippling. In the first place, of course, there’s Sullivan’s voice—a throaty, slightly hoarse instrument that can, not unusually, sing rings around her more pop peers. What’s less usual is that, in many cases, the songwriting on the album also outclasses mainstream pop. The lead single “Holding You Down (Goin’ In Circles)” is a great Missy Elliott production sewn together out of tracks by Pete Rock, Nas, Slick Rick and who knows what else, with all the seams still showing, as the track staggers and jerks under Sullivan’s soulful vocals. It’s like hearing Mary J. Blige dropped from a height onto an early hip-hop track. Similarly unexpected is the Los da Mystro–produced “Don’t Make Me Wait,” which finds Sullivan pretending to be, of all people, Prince, complete with retro-Minneapolis itchy beats, single-minded single entendres (“I don’t want your number boy / just want your body / you can keep the conversation for some other hottie”) and a chorus shout-out to Vanity fucking 6. You can bet your incredibly irritating quivering cry of pain that Keyshia Cole is not name-checking Vanity 6.
There are other great songs here too; Salaam Remi’s “Love You Long Time” sounds like Caribbean music produced by Darkchild, with steel drum beats swathed in gloriously tacky echoey multi-tracked vocals; “Love You Long Time,” another Missy Elliott track has the soaring inevitability of a Motown cut…except clunky, which somehow (as with Elliott’s classic work with girl group 702) only makes it more perfect.
“Redemption” is perhaps the album’s weirdest track, with Sullivan speaking first as a crack addict and then as a wife beater before pleading for absolution with some churchy gospel emoting. Like most message songs, it doesn’t exactly work—but it is revealing. As I said, most neo-soul tends to be about meaning it; using older styles and tics to show that you’re the real thing. Sullivan, though, never exactly means it—she’s always taking on roles. She can pretend to be a crack whore, or Prince, or, an independent woman on “Good Enough,” a solid soul ballad that I do believe even Sharon Jones would be proud to cover. But more often than not Sullivan is taking on personas rather than revealing her soul. The distance gives her room to be ambitious, and funny, and smart, and odd. It lets her play with the past rather than letting the past play her.