Jazmine Sullivan, 23, may be one of the most talented vocalists of her generation. On "Good Enough," "10 Seconds," and "Excuse Me," she smolders like few others and there is so much raw emotion in her alto that one forgets just how young she is. On cuts like the Vanity 6 tribute, "Don't Make Me Wait," Sullivan also knows how to command a retro ‘80s R&B beat and pull it off as if she's a vet of the Alicia Meyers or Patrice Rushen generation instead of a starlet of this one. Kitschy anthemic pop songs like "Love You Long Time," the occasionally straining lyric on "Don't Make Me Wait," and the derivative "Stuttering" (Joe, anyone? A bit of Shirley Murdoch's "As We Lay" production too.) remind you that Sullivan's songwriting skills are still in development, even if her voice is already aged cognac.
Incidentally, what clarity in tone Sullivan had in her vocals has disappeared, leaving behind a mature, raspy tone that has gained weight, depth and power. Everything sounds immediate and instantly believable in Jazmine Sullivan's hands. These gifts served Whitney Houston when she was served subpar material and production in the '80s and early '90s, and they serve Sullivan here on what is a bevy of safe, radio-ready material.
What most fails Sullivan on this project are the unimaginative arrangements and productions that sometime are more filler than this star and her gifts deserve. There are plenty of solid, melodic songs throughout this project, songs that benefit from repeated play, but only a handful come close to the hem of such classic performances as "I'm In Love With Another Man," "Lions, Tigers, and Bears," or even "Bust Your Windows" in freshness and ingenuity. These complaints will fade as the album settles in one's ear, but they don't make several of these songs anything other than what they are: middling, conservative fare intended to house Sullivan's current hit singles and carry her forward just enough to keep her in the spotlight.
There are exceptions and they are almost all executed by the same producers that made Sullivan's debut so damn memorable. "Holding You Down (Goin In Circles)" and "Excuse Me" by Missy Elliott and Cainon Lamb demonstrate why Elliott will never be unemployed in this business; this Virginian understands more than a little something about soul. Salaam Remi of "Lions, Tigers, and Bears" fame (among a hundred other hits) blesses "10 Seconds" with enough Philly International Records sounds to make it a truly timeless Fender Rhodes classic. With killer military drums drawing you into a danceable groove, Remi makes you almost forget the origins of the truly asinine reference of "Love You Long Time" (2 Live Crew, anyone?), particularly since the annoying catch-phrase is the hook. Red-hot producer Chuck Harmony has been on a roll and he almost craps out with that awful synth-pop opening of "Good Enough," but it turns out to be a welcome ruse when the Prince flavored power ballad is quickly revealed and delivers Sullivan another mightily deserved win.
Only the self-indulgent "Famous" produced by No I.D. and Prolyfic is a straight-out bad song. Other cuts like Toby Gad's "Stuttering" are doomed to live in the land of forgotten filler. Speaking of which, the gimmicky Ne-Yo duet "U Get On My Nerves" is so unmemorable it makes you wonder why they even bothered. Maybe Missy or Salaam should have produced that too. The directionless hip hop soul narrative, "Redemption," tries but tries too hard for the kind of Jamaican-flavored smash Lauryn Hill did in her sleep. Despite a simply awful arrangement, Jazzy does deliver her absolute best vocal of the entire album here, ensuring that producer Anthony Bell's "Redemption" curiously manages to hit and miss in the same song. Nonetheless, I suspect the hollerin' "Redemption" will become a sleeper hit by the sheer will of Sullivan's undeniable vocal talent. About the same can be said for the rest of Sullivan's sound, if uneven sophomore effort, one that keeps one waiting to hear what she'll do next. Maybe a whole Missy album, anyone? Anyone? Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson