Though reality television has procured quite the bad reputation over the years, one can’t deny its ability to mirror some of truths of the human race, no matter how flawed it may be. On any given show you’re sure to recognize recurring themes of vanity, greed and toxic relationships, among other vices. These are just a few of the explored subject matters on Jazmine Sullivan’s third studio album, Reality Show, the first release since her very felt hiatus from the music industry back in 2011.
Four years later, Sullivan takes contemporary television and uses it as her muse in what may be her most ambitious album to date. Proven to have the musical palette of a jukebox, Sullivan is ballsy this time around, going for a more modern sound and lyrical approach. Though at her core, Sullivan is the consummate soul artist, and that shines through and through, on Reality Show she also manifests the grittiness of hip-hop (“Dumb,” “Brand New” and “Silver Lining”), and the heart of jazz (“Stupid Girls”).
Her approach: explicit, unadulterated honesty. But honesty doesn’t always look pretty. Sullivan, the album’s primary songwriter, uses her pen game to paint a critical lens of society’s obsession with money, acceptance and love, and what people will do to achieve or maintain it.
“Mascara” tells the first-person point of view of a woman’s convulsion with beauty–society’s version that is. The musically mellow song depicts the antithesis of self-love, instead illustrating the delusion of enhancing one’s natural beauty to achieve vain ambitions like lavish trips and designer things from a man. Though she has no job of her own nor education, the song’s protagonist revels in her ability to use what she has physically to get what she wants materially–a cultural critique that’s often been aligned with today’s reality TV and social media obsessed generation.
“Yeah my hair and my ass fake, but/so what?” Sullivan seductively sings, almost sarcastically. “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 coming if I keep my body tight/And them bitches stay mad.”
On “Veins” and “HoodLove,” Sullivan explores the dangers of a toxic love. In the tabloid-driven world of today, relationships and marriages are great until they are no longer. One minute it’s seemingly a fairy tale and the next it’s a train wreck spiraling out of control–and often its participants are unaware of the poisonous reality.
Such is the case on “HoodLove,” a soul-folk, vocally tantalizing narrative of a lover who will ride or die for her presumably gang-bangin-dope-selling man, regardless of its outcome.
“…I’ma ride this bitch ‘til the wheels fall off/my love so deep, so deep for my nigga,” Sullivan croons. “Bang, bang/Every king need a queen/So I’ll fight for my nigga/Take a life for my nigga.”
On “HoodLove,” Sullivan is spunky, raw and packs quite the punch of attitude. On this track, her raspy voice is sharp like a knife, but so pleasing to the ear it soothes the soul like butter. Sonically she perfectly personifies the tenacity of a woman so dangerously enamored with her lover she doesn’t even care to recognize its consequences.
“And he ain’t always right, but he’s just right for me”–a clever lyrical flashback from a Sullivan fan favorite, “In Love With Another Man,” off her 2008 debut album Fearless.
“Veins,” a spooky yet spine-chilling record, takes a similar but more cryptic and dark approach, likening love to an addiction (“This crazy, intoxicating kind of thing/One day, might be the death of me”).
Though to the misinformed listener it may sound as if Sullivan is condoning or even an active participant in the topics she sings about, it appears she’s rather simply holding a mirror to the ills so many attribute to youth culture and American society. Sullivan abstractly lets the lyrics speak for themselves, leaving the listener to draw his or her own conclusions.
But the album is far from jaded, and explores more than just the depravity of mankind. Gems like the throwback-leaning “Let It Burn” (which samples Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds’ “Ready Or Not”) masterfully captures the essence of healthy, passionate and undeniable love. If there’s ever a question why Sullivan is considered one of the most talented voices in music, “Let It Burn” removes all doubt. Sullivan’s powerhouse, husky vocals shine like gold, as they do on “Masterpiece (Mona Lisa),” a theatrical anthem of self-discovery.
“Masterpiece” fittingly concludes the album (minus the bonus track “If You Dare”). Despite Reality Show’s heavy subject matters relating mostly to insecurities, society’s moral defects and the love of man and money, this track marks the revelation of seeing beauty and value within oneself. Vocally, Sullivan leaves nothing to the imagination. Her voice soars like never before.
“I’m a work of art, a Mona Lisa/I’ll share my picture with the world/I’m not afraid to let it show anymore/I can light the night,” she sings. “Now that I know the truth/Time to show and prove.”
It’s on tracks like this where her vocals, juxtaposed with light strings, guitar and piano, Sullivan’s brilliance of a voice is undeniably heard.
Where her lyrics instigates, her voice penetrates. The combination of the two only proves why Sullivan is one of the most prolific artists of our time. Unafraid to take risks and willing to challenge the way we consume R&B music. While her contemporariness will probably not grant her Billboard Top 40 single glory, it doesn’t quite matter, for her musical zealous will surely pay off.
Reality Show is well worth the four-year wait, and the best part is that it probably only scratches the surface of what Sullivan is capable of as both singer and songwriter. A contemporary snapshot of society, the album makes us stop and think about what we value and reminds us of the beauty we sometimes overlook. Like the real world, it gives the listener a full scope; the good, the bad, the ugly and the alluring. That’s what reality looks like and what music should always be. Thankfully, music has Sullivan back to help lead the charge.
–Review by Gerren Keith Gaynor