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Across the country, it’s the coldest November 18th in decades, but outside of the Gramercy Theater in New York City, a line of bubble-coat wrapped bodies seems not to care, which could be described as clinically insane considering the temperature is hovering around -3 degrees. Patiently waiting on 23rd Street and spilling down Lexington Avenue are hundreds of Jazmine Sullivan fans. Her unceremonious departure from music three years ago has left them so desperate for her return that they are willing to bear this hour-long door situation in the midst of a polar vortex.
Inside, Sullivan is unaware of the line. Technical difficulties have created some last minute pre-show drama and she is determined to make sure, if nothing else, the sound quality tonight is perfect, even if that means her fans may have to applaud with frost bitten hands.
For most artists, this is a routine type of promotional performance— a required part of a new album release schedule— but for Sullivan, the stakes are higher. It’s her first New York show in over three years; it’s the first time she will perform tracks from her new album “Reality Show” live; and this latest album isn’t just a new piece of art—it’s also the beginning of her comeback story.
The day before, I met a much quieter and reserved Sullivan. When she arrived at the small wine bar in Harlem where we decided to hold our photo shoot, she seemed nervous. She and her team had driven up from Philadelphia and somehow Google led them to a Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn. Between traffic and the steadily falling rain, everyone was tense when she arrives almost two hours behind.
But as the shoot began, Sullivan loosened up. She’s not particularly chatty when interviewed, but she loves the camera. She angles, smizes, and kisses the photographer’s lens, moving slowly through poses in a way that is both surprising and impressive. Despite rumors Sullivan has previously shied away from the press due to discomfort with her image, the girl in front of us seemed absolutely sure of herself – that is, until we’re in between takes and she’s questioning the next look, worrying about the angle of her chin and asking for her hair to fall below her shoulders because she doesn’t really like that part of her body.
As her Momager and stylist scurried about primping, fixing and fretting about earrings, Sullivan’s demeanor made me wonder if, despite her desire to reclaim her place in the spotlight, she’s as terrified as she’s ever been. She credits her ease in front of the camera to “taking a million selfies a day.” It’s a reminder that Sullivan is only 27 years old and when we met her in 2008 on her Missy Elliott produced breakthrough record “Need U Bad” she was barely 21.
The musical charts of 2008 were dominated by a handful of ladies: Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Beyonce (as usual) and most notably, the newly coronated queen of pop, Taylor Swift. To call Jazmine Sullivan a breath of fresh air amongst that pop culture landscape would be as insufficient as saying Brooklyn has “changed.” Audiences loved her full-bodied textured voice, raw vocals and painfully honest lyrics. Lauryn Hill comparisons were abundant and her first three singles “Need U Bad”, “Lions, Tigers and Bears”, and “Bust Your Windows” propelled her debut album “Fearless” to the number one spot on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart and an impressive number six spot on the Billboard 200.
“Things have changed a little from the time I first started,” she says. “When I first started, I didn’t have any issues. I felt like people were appreciating my sound and it was unique.” But even back then, rumors swirled that Sullivan was uncomfortable in front of the camera due to her tightly framed videos and lack of live television performances.
“A lot of people think that the pressure of the industry and, you know, my weight and everything kind of made me stop… and me feeling like I was getting the short end of the stick, but that was not it at all. That had a little bit to do with it but a lot of it was that I was dealing with my own mess in my own life, personally, and it all just happened to be too much and I had to stop.”
In January 2011, a 23-year-old Sullivan announced via Twitter she was taking a break from the industry. The now-deleted Tweet read:
“i’m making an official announcement that i am taking a break from music … i’m trying to figure out who i am … w/out a mike, paper or pen. i promised myself when it wasn’t fun anymore i wouldn’t do it. and here i am. i love u all and appreciate u soooooo much … u have no idea how much u’ve inspired me and fed my ego. but the truth is that i have to believe in me whether you all do or not. and thats what i’m lookin for. that belief in myself. me. I. i love us. thanks for being here for me and riding with me on this journey. let us continue.
Fans were shocked. But it was the people closest to her, who also found out she was quitting on Twitter, who took it the hardest. “I told everybody, including my Mom, Dad and management and everything all via Twitter. Everybody was mad at me. [They were] like if you were going to stop at least you could’ve called.”
Perhaps even more shocking was the timing of the whole ordeal—Sullivan’s second album, “Love Me Back” had been released just six weeks prior—and just like that, she was done.
When I asked about the catalyst for her departure from music, she answered with visible discomfort. Initially she offered one of those generic prepared responses. “I don’t really have anything specific; I’m just ready…I feel like I took enough time off… I’m kind of just ready to tell my story.” When I pressed it further, she elaborated only to say, “I went through a bad breakup and a bad relationship.”
But the next day, on stage at the Gramercy Theater, Sullivan finally confessed to hundreds of fans what precipitated her abrupt departure from the business— she had been in an abusive relationship.
In a later, post-concert interview, I asked her to elaborate about the type of abuse she experienced and the degree to which she suffered. This time she obliged, albeit carefully. “It was all kinds of abuse, I mean it started out verbally and got to a point where it became physical. It was a bad relationship. It took a heavy, heavy toll on me, so much so that I didn’t even have a song to sing—I didn’t feel like I did anyway.”
Sullivan said she began to alienate herself from her family and friends and admits she intentionally kept them in the dark about her personal life. As she tried to navigate her feelings, she became increasingly reclusive and moved to California, where she ultimately lost her will to perform.
“For a long time, I kind of kept away from everybody. When you know you’re not right, and you know you’re not doing something right, you try to stay away from people who will tell you that.”
It only takes one listen to one of her latest singles, “Forever Doesn’t Last Always” to imagine the hurt and pain she was enduring. When I ask her if she’s worried about joining Janay Rice as an unwilling face of domestic abuse, her desire to share her story, whatever the costs, was unwavering.
“It took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to say it. I went through a lot of guilt myself, like, should I expose this? Am I being petty by talking about it? It’s a lot of feelings that women have in regards to this. But, [I realized] this can possibly help somebody to see that someone that they look up to, or listen to, or are a fan of have actually been through it, and not only have I been through it, but I came out of it. I just felt like it’s a part of my story so why not share it? I’m the face of my own situation. I don’t know if I can be the face for everybody, but I definitely want to share my story the way I’ve experienced it and I hope people can learn from it like I have.”
Love, heartbreak and romance have always been at the core of Jazmine Sullivan’s canon. “Reality Show” is an accurate if not perfect follow up album for one of the most elusive young artists in the business. “I guess that’s kind of like the climate right now. People want to know about people. Period. You don’t even have to be a star. People just want to see your life. They want to see your dirt.”
An hour has passed at the Gramercy Theater and the frigid fans have finally snuggled into their seats, drinks have been ordered and the electricity in the room feels like that of a high-school talent show in that way everyone feels they have a personal stake in what’s about to ensue. When Sullivan steps on stage in a black form fitting knee-length dress adorned with an asymmetrical gold zipper that crosses her chest, she literally strikes a pose. It’s as if she’s practiced this in her bedroom dozens of times, perhaps even while Tyra Banks was on TV in the background shredding some poor 19-year-old’s dreams. For the next hour, Sullivan has the audience dancing in the aisles, praising Jesus audibly and throwing their hands in the air as if they might fall-out, while shouts of “yasssss girl!” echo throughout the room. She’s effortlessly comfortable on stage, dancing and sexily slinking around, posing to the audience with her backside and otherwise owning the room.
“I’m a real woman! I’m a woman like every other woman and we have our days sometimes where we feel beautiful and sometimes we don’t,” she says.
Sullivan puts on a show worthy of the sub-zero wait. She treats the audience to some of the new album’s best singles. A woman-centric anthem called “Mascara” boast mature and slightly raunchy lyrics like these:
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/ And them bitches stay mad cause I’m living the life
Of course, the ladies went crazy. But where “Reality Show” really stuns is in the honest and vulnerable songs like “Mona Lisa” which Sullivan calls a “deeply personal” journey to self-acceptance:
My eyes ain’t used to these rays/I’m feeling exposed, but I hide no more/ I can’t hid/As the sun shines on all of my glory/My flaws don’t look so bad at all/What was I so afraid of?
The answer to that question is what Sullivan fans have been dying to find out. And while “Reality Show” isn’t exactly a tell-all, it does seem as if Sullivan is finally attempting to identify the source of her fears for herself.
“I’m literally figuring things out day by day just like everyone else. People think I know about love more than I actually do. I love love and I’m always on a quest to figure out men and how relationships work and why they don’t work and stuff like that. But I don’t know shit.”
It’s that honesty that makes Jazmine Sullivan’s voice a requirement. It’s the reason we wait for her and hope she’ll allow us to follow her rollercoaster life journey as the voyeuristic culture-vultures that we are. Jazmine makes us need her because she writes the kinds of lyrics that make the obsessive gut-wrenching feelings of heartache beautiful, melodic and freeing. We need her bad—let’s hope she finally knows that and sticks around.
** Jazmine Sullivan’s album “Reality Show” was released on January 13, 2015 and debuted at #1 on the Billboard R&B Top 200 Chart.
(Credits: Styling, Tyron Perrin; Photography, Andrew Fennell)
Leigh Davenport is the Editorial Director of HelloBeautiful.com. She hails from Chicago, loves pizza, ballet, whisky, politics and storytelling. Her work has been featured elsewhere, but considering she is the Editorial Director of HelloBeautiful.com, she doesn’t need to mention it. Follow her on Twitter @Leighdav