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Review: Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘Reality Show’ Is So Much Deeper Than Its Title Suggests

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SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Label: RCA

Jazmine Sullivan tweeted a threat in 2011 that she was leaving the biz: “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.” But the R&B singer’s returned, less reliant on vocal pyrotechnics and shows of soul, having figured herself out with mike, paper, and pen after all. Reality Show, her first album in five years and third altogether, presents a Sullivan of poise and humor, blessed with — as the title hints — a knowing wink at self-dramatization. This isn’t the singer with the scratchy higher register who insisted on dragging listeners through the emotional (and sample) shifts of 2010’s “Holding You Down (Over and Over).”

While the sight of co-conspirators Chuck Harmony and Salaam Remi in the credits won’t surprise anyone, the consistency of their approach might. As concept and program, Sullivan’s best album to date boasts every curtain call and lighting effect designed to flatter its star. The biggest surprise is “Stanley,” produced by Da Internz as a disco thumper with sequencers and bass, over which Sullivan laments a life of cleaning her damn home and needing the attention of the title character, who won’t even take her to dinner. Musically, Sullivan eschews the skyscraper notes to fit the quiet, steady plod. Harmony — best known for splendid work on Fantasia’s 2013 Side Effects of You — helms “#Hoodlove,” encouraging the use of Sullivan’s lower register, which resembles that of a young Lauryn Hill. After informing us she packs a .45 in her purse, she moans, “I’m gonna ride this bitch till the wheels come off,” again and again. Love is dangerous, Stanley.

On “Mascara” she affects a brassy-Bassey swagger suggesting she’s onto the game; to court men is to enact a timeworn scenario, so why not fuss over your looks like Jada Pinkett? She wakes up and puts on her makeup but not to conceal pain, necessarily: She likes looking good and attracting attention. Sullivan’s long lines and key shifts testify to the track’s performative qualities. She isn’t merely belting like, say, Keyshia Cole. Falling in love is an experiment she plays on her feelings.

Finding a song that gets away with mixing the brash and the rueful is some trick, and three quarters of the time, Sullivan does just that. “I had high hopes for us, baby / Like I was on dope for us, baby,” she sings on the acoustic “Forever Don’t Last,” elongating and deepening her intonations for comic effect. Fans of “10 Seconds” from 2010’s Love Me Back are directed to “Silver Lining,” but in context it looks like a concession to a Jazmine Sullivan who’s sashayed — not walked away — from a self she no longer recognizes. Turns out Reality Show is the wittiest joke that Sullivan could have told on herself: Reality used to be a friend of hers.