For Jazmine Sullivan, the name of the game is realism. Her follow-up to the mega-hit Fearless is Love Me Back, a spirited and affecting collection of R&B and hip hop missives that wanders through the murky evidence of broken relationships in search of something authentic to cling on to.
The seven-time Grammy nominee, a protégé of Missy Elliot, comes to the arrangement with a well-worn set of pipes and excels at walking the fine line between legit heartbreak and volcanic whining.
Love Me Back does tumble into some of the traps that some modern R&B finds itself in all too regularly, but Sullivan’s voice more often than not rescues the proceedings and takes things to another level. It helps that the record is lyrically creative and intelligent, especially in its unabashed use of modern language.
At just 23, one wonders just how Sullivan managed to get to the point she’s at. She has that world-weary sense of things and tucks it into nearly every note, managing a feat that only a handful of modern vocalists can do with any regularity. Sullivan wears down the edges of her words, half with ache and half with hope, and this propels even the most humdrum of arrangements into another stratosphere. There’s a little nudge of Lauryn Hill and a little touch of Amy Winehouse here, but Sullivan is her own complete animal all the same.
The record opens on shaky footing, unfortunately, with the cramped “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles).” The cut may have been penned with the help of Missy, but the presence of an overused beat and a lot of production tricks makes it hard for us to identify with the singer.
Luckily by the time “Good Enough” rolls around, Love Me Back is on solid ground. The tune, penned by Sullivan with the help of Chuck Harmony, is the album’s indication that things are really getting underway. Sullivan belts with a rightly defiant statement: “If you don’t want me, someone else will.”
The crumbled shards of relationships everywhere tear into flesh on other tracks, too, like the haunting “Redemption.” This is the piece that finds Sullivan at her most inventive, as she vocalizes both characters in a tour de force performance that delves into the bleak underbelly so few traverse. It’s her commitment, especially when it comes time to play an abusive male character, that is most staggering.
Sullivan joins Ne-Yo with “U Get on My Nerves,” another broken relationship tune that works as a conversation between two ex-lovers. It’s a somewhat-better-than-average duet that shows off Ne-Yo’s songwriting chops, but it doesn’t live up to the epic potential of the pairing.
Other cuts take on different angles, like the sunny “Luv Back” or the lushly performed “Famous.” The latter unfortunately distracts somewhat using an unnecessary beat, but the former would be a bright summertime single.
Overall, Love Me Back is an impressive showcase of Sullivan’s talents as a singer and as a performer. Her ability to sink her teeth in to her characters and stories is enticing. Even with the too-frequent missteps in overproduction, Sullivan is able to make this record soar where few other artists could.
Check out the video for “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles)”