Michael T. Regan
Ever since May 2008, when Jazmine Sullivan's debut single the riddim-flecked, Missy Elliott-helmed "Need U Bad" started getting spins on urban radio, national writers have been breaking out in paper cuts, thumbing through thesauri in an attempt to capture the right words to aptly describe the electricity that runs throughout the 21-year-old singer/songwriter's self-penned J Records debut, Fearless.
She's got swag. She's got attitude. She's got a chip on her shoulder. She's got wisdom and confidence beyond her years. She's got what they call an "old soul." And that's without even getting into her voice, a window-frame-shaking, drawn-from-the-depths alto she still manages to bend and tease with ease, splashing across tracks like a smooth stone across a still pond.
All these trite superlatives, of course, can be encapsulated in one simple six-syllable phrase that only people from around here can truly grasp: The girl is from Philly.
In December, Sullivan learned she was nominated for five Grammy Awards Best New Artist, Best Contemporary R&B Album, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance ("Need U Bad"), Best R&B Song ("Bust Your Windows") and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance (the goosebump-inducing "In Love With Another Man"). While we have to wait until Sunday (Feb. 8) to see if she'll need to clear space above her fireplace, Sullivan, who won't turn 22 until April 9, is already a bona fide threat. Fearless hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart after its Sept. 23 release. In November, she wrapped up her first-ever tour, opening for crooner Maxwell on a 28-date U.S. jaunt.
Some people like to say she's the black Amy Winehouse; even more call her a fresh-faced Lauryn Hill for the new century. Yet this is the chick who put her roots down singing gospel at St. Andrew's Fellowship Baptist Church in Germantown, the girl who became the youngest artist ever to grace the stage as part of the city's landmark Black Lily showcases.
You can't get much more Philly than that.
Ask Jazmine Sullivan where she's from specifically, and she'll say North Philly Strawberry Mansion, to be precise. But growing up, she was hesitant to tell people her proper mailing address. She lived in the actual mansion her father, Don, worked as the head curator of the East Fairmount Park historical spot built in the late 18th century by abolitionist William Lewis, so Sullivan, her mother/manager Pam, and her older brother Justin and younger brother Julian took up residence on the third floor.
"It was just a house for me," says Sullivan on the phone, just before leaving for Los Angeles to attend the Grammys. She lived in the mansion from ages 5 to 17. "I won't say I resented it, but it was a little difficult. I wasn't in the neighborhood with all the other kids from school. [But] once people at school found out, people thought I was rich and had all these things they didn't have, which was absolutely not true. I was a little ashamed. I didn't want people to think I was better than them."
Though Sullivan had little control over her peers' perceptions, there was one area where no one could knock her: singing. She earned her first formal experience at the age of 5 singing in the junior choir at St. Andrew's, but her pipes warmed up a little earlier than that. OK, a lot earlier.
Joyce Johnson, who for close to 20 years has headed the St. Andrew's youth department, including its youth choir, The Golden Specials, remembers the first time she heard Jazmine sing. She was at the Sullivan residence, working on music with Jazmine's mother. "Pam wanted to teach me this song, so we could take it back to the choir," says Johnson. "Jazmine was about 18 months old, in the playpen. Her mom gave me the soprano note, and she was singing the alto note."
Out of nowhere, the still-in-diapers Sullivan opened her mouth and tossed out the tenor part in pitch-perfect harmony.
"I got upset and left," laughs Johnson. "I said, 'I'm not going to stand here and let your 18-month-old baby out-sing me!"
"Some people try to go to school and learn," Johnson adds. "She was born a singer. She stood out."
At least some of this is genetic. Pam toured as a backup singer with Philadelphia International Records' Gene McFadden and John Whitehead; in the '70s, she cut an album called Think Fast on small New York-based label Pizzazz Records; she also wrote a play called The Judgment that ran at the Merriam Theater in the late '90s.
Jazmine's reminded of this pedigree every time someone asks her for an autograph. "I named her Jazmine after my love of jazz music," says Pam of the unusual spelling of her daughter's name, "because I guess I secretly hoped she would become a jazz singer. There's something definitely to be said about what you name your child it has a lot to do with who they are."
Hit up YouTube and you can watch Sullivan's on-the-books debut: In 1999, a regional talent contest sponsored by McDonald's led the 11-year-old to a performance on Showtime at the Apollo, where she rocked a matching sequined animal print hat and vest set while blowing away the unsuspecting Harlem crowd with a rendition of gospel standard "Accept What God Allows." (Choir director Johnson, whose father owns a bus company, says dozens of St. Andrew's parishioners piled onto coaches and traveled to New York to cheer Sullivan on.)
Under mom's watchful tutelage, Sullivan blossomed as a performer in her youngest years, moving up the ranks into a soloist role at St. Andrew's. But choir robes could contain that voice for only so long. "I wanted everything to be bigger than it was. ... I knew that I wanted to do more," Sullivan recalls. "I knew that one day I [wanted] to speak about things I could never talk about in gospel music."
Her mother was initially apprehensive when she expressed her desire to pursue secular R&B, but soon came around and began playing Sullivan the icons Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Philly-born Phyllis Hyman. "She knew that if I was going to do it, I should know my history," says Sullivan. "I should know who the greats were, to fashion my music so that it lasts and my career lasts like theirs."
So how did the youngin respond to being schooled on the grown folks' heavy hitters? "My first reaction was that I didn't want to hear it," she laughs. "When you're younger, you're a little hardheaded. ... You don't want to listen to anything your parents want you to listen to. But when I got a little older and wiser, I [realized] it was wonderful music."
Wonderful music is precisely what the grand-but-green Sullivan wanted to make but she didn't have anywhere to make it, or anyone to make it with. So in 2000, Pam looked up Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez, better known as soul act Jazzyfatnastees. In that same year, the duo had transformed the informal jam sessions that started at Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's house into the renowned female-driven Tuesday night open-mic salon known as Black Lily. (The shows were held at Old City's The Five Spot, which was destroyed in a fire in February 2007.)
D. Ryva Parker
Pam hoped the organizers would take a risk and grant 13-year-old Jazmine an audition, a chance to prove she could blow, in front of a live band, on a stage whose floorboards saw the likes of Jill Scott, Bilal, Jaguar Wright, Musiq Soulchild and Lady Alma. "Even though I wanted her to be a singer, I also watched to see if she could be [one]," says Pam. "I didn't push her I allowed her to show me that she could. [The Black Lily] step was one of presenting to her the challenge of singing on a live stage, to see if she could learn how to perform."
Moore and Martinez agreed to hear Jazmine out she performed a rendition of "Accept What God Allows," the same church song from Apollo. "I went to the studio and sang for them," Sullivan recalls, "and they were like, 'OK, wow, she's great. Come next Tuesday and we'll see how she does.'"
D. Ryva Parker, who served as Black Lily's resident host/emcee/co-producer, was there for the audition. She's slightly less understated in her recollection. "Everybody was just blown away," says Parker. "Such a huge, robust, full and dynamic voice vocal control, timbre, everything. She was already polished when she was 13. She's a frickin' phenomenon."So began Sullivan's run as Black Lily's baby-faced wunderkind. Pam helped shape her daughter's repertoire of covers tracks from old-school pillars like Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron and Sly and the Family Stone to contemporary artists like Mary J. Blige, Carl Thomas and former Fugee Hill. She built up a bit of a name for herself locally ("You heard that young girl?"). Older brother Justin played bass in her band; Sullivan's parents attended every one of her performances. (You had to be 21 to get in, after all.)
In 2001, Sullivan missed her first week of vocal classes at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA) at Broad and Christian after getting the opportunity to travel to London to participate in a Lily showcase at that city's famed Jazz Café. (She also ended up missing her graduation ceremony for an audition.) Sullivan's very first appearance on an album came singing backup on Lily duo Kindred's 2003 debut Surrender to Love.
"They could've easily felt like this girl belongs in the church, and not on [their stage]," says Pam of the Lily team. "But they saw music, they saw talent, and they allowed her come and hone her gift."
In 2002, when Sullivan was 15, things took what seemed to be a queen-size leap forward an A&R rep from Jive Records caught one of Sullivan's Lily performances, which led to the label signing the then-sophomore to a deal. The relationship started off strong; Sullivan was writing and recording material basically three albums worth of songs, she says. But nothing with her name on it ever hit the shelves. In 2005, Jive dropped the 18-year-old, who'd just graduated from CAPA.
"I was left to people who didn't really understand who I was," says Sullivan of the soured partnership. That was only part of it, though she didn't really understand who she was, either. "I had to experience different things life, period. When I was younger, it was all music ... but I didn't have anything to really talk about."
"Philly was up in a rage over that," says Parker of the nixed Jive deal. "It was a whole chain of effect everybody here was looking forward to it. But that didn't stop her. It didn't slow her down. It didn't deter her."
Instead, Sullivan was motivated to reassess her identity, as both an artist and an individual. It was imperative that she pinpoint what beyond just the voice would make a label realize she was worthy of a franchise tag. "Even a little before I got dropped [by Jive], I started to experience life as a young lady becoming an adult," says Sullivan. "That really helped me a lot. It was then I began realizing that my gift was storytelling."
Several songs Sullivan wrote or co-wrote during her stint with Jive ended up on albums from singers like Christina Milian, American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino and current Grammy rival Jennifer Hudson. "It was a little hard letting go of some of those songs," she says. (Go to YouTube one more time to watch Sullivan destroy "Say I," which became a pop hit for Milian.) Yes, watching others take her words and run hurt but it did help her realize that her writing prowess was a commodity. "I really started focusing on that ... how to get a message across and how to say things differently," says Sullivan.
The now-Grammy-earmarked "In Love with Another Man," the lovelorn, nearly hymn-like ballad that ranks as the most effortlessly powerful song on Fearless, became Sullivan's calling card as she and Pam took a series of post-Jive appointments with labels. No one was biting at first. "They all recognized that it was a great song, but I pretty much got the same response it was a huge song, but they didn't know where to place me," says Sullivan. But when Peter Edge, executive VP at J Records, got his hands on the demo, he heard something the others didn't. He brought Sullivan in to perform after she did, "he was pretty much on board." An eventual face-to-face with Sony bossman Clive Davis sealed the deal. In 2007, just two years after the Jive dissolution and less than a decade after rocking the Lily right, Sullivan finally had a real chance to cut an album.
More importantly, J was keen on letting Sullivan record on her own terms the singer wrote all her own material, but she also boasts an executive producer credit on the album. "[Before], I had people creating who Jazmine Sullivan was," she says. "But it's important [now] that it's totally me everything that I talk about in my songs, they're my ideas. They come from my personal experiences and my observations ... because I wrote everything, I came in knowing who I was, and I knew what direction I wanted to take the album in."
Michael T. Regan
But what direction is that, exactly? It's easy to slide Sullivan's 12-track debut beneath the R&B umbrella, but a single straight-through listen reveals a complex and unexpected nesting doll-like package of disciplines and influences.
Album opener "Bust Your Windows," Sullivan's second mainstream smash, grabs its flamenco-tinged energy from producer Salaam Remi's string-heavy composition. The song's become a bit like Sullivan's own "You're So Vain" she confirms that the smirking tale of destroying a philandering boyfriend's ride with a crowbar was inspired by a real-life relationship ("it wasn't that long ago," Sullivan lets on coyly), but refuses to confirm or deny that she actually did the glass-bashing deed. Though she had essentially no exposure to reggae prior to laying down the track, Sullivan rides Missy and Cainon Lamb's dub-drunk "Need U Bad" beat like a seasoned dance hall vet. (The patois drops on the track come from none other than Sandra "Pepa" Denton of Salt-n-Pepa.)
The vintage soul-inflected "My Foolish Heart" is a threat toward a man she hasn't been able to shake despite his disregard for her feelings. The cheeky, neo-doo-woppy "One Night Stand" finds Sullivan wondering how, exactly, a singular physical fling ended up with her love-struck, cooking pancakes for a boy the morning after. Partially inspired by Sullivan's role as Dorothy in a middle-school production of The Wiz, the theatrical new single "Lions, Tigers & Bears" (above) juxtaposes Sullivan's seasoning in the music industry with her relative inexperience in matters of the heart (I'm not scared to perform at a sold-out affair/ But I'm scared of (loving you)").
Perhaps the most provocative track on the album, "Call Me Guilty" sees Sullivan weaving a fictional tale of an abused woman who takes drastic measures to end the violence once and for all ("Pulled the trigger/ it wasn't so hard go figure/ Before I did it I said /'This was for all the blood I shed'"). "The first time I heard [the track], the hook sounded like someone running in a blaxploitation film from the '70s, so I built the story around that," says Sullivan of her thought process. "Why would somebody be running?"
Nothing like that has ever happened to her, Sullivan says but that doesn't mean someone listening won't be able to relate. "It's a real subject and women go through it," she explains. "I wanted to write a song to be a mirror of that situation."
On whom does Sullivan model her mixed-up approach? The Wonder-ful one, of course. "[As a kid], I remember being intrigued by all the different sounds that [Stevie Wonder] had," says Sullivan. "If you listen to one album, one song to the next sounds so different. His albums are filled with different types of music but it is all his music. That's a big part of how I make music now."
"I [didn't] want to be so focused on making it sound like just one thing," adds Sullivan. "That's not who I am."
Most 21-year-olds have no clue who they are. Sullivan is not most 21-year-olds. "Her confidence is like whoa," says Parker of the young Lily alum. "If you can make it out of Philly, you breathe differently."
Yeah, five Grammy nominations mean you've made it out, so to speak but be confident that Sullivan, whose family now lives in the Northeast, is not going anywhere. "Sometimes we say things and we do things that aren't the nicest," she says of her hometown brethren. "But it's real. That's my attitude. When people come to perform here, we're not easy on them. You have to earn our respect. Once you do, we love you. But we don't sugarcoat anything if you ain't good, you ain't good."
The girl is from Philly.