Jazmine Sullivan - Fearless (2008)

Jazmine Sullivan
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Like Common's Be, Jazmine Sullivan's Fearless is just two songs shy of being a benchmark classic in the annals of music history. This is none too harsh a criticism for a debut album from an artist whose "unreleased" work for several years has filled You Tube with ear bleeding renditions and countless video homages. Under the guidance of J Records' Clive Davis, the mastermind behind Whitney Houston's meteoric rise, Jazmine Sullivan's Fearless meets every expectation. Her instrument is well presented in a suite of eclectic songs as unexpected and welcome as the weight, maturity and skill of a vocal talent twice her age. More than an astonishing voice, Jazmine Sullivan proves to be a storyteller of rare talent, the kind that leaves you breathless for more for decades to come.

Like Common's Be, Jazmine Sullivan's Fearless is just two songs shy of being a benchmark classic in the annals of music history. This is none too harsh a criticism for a debut album from an artist whose "unreleased" work for several years has filled You Tube with ear bleeding renditions and countless video homages. Under the guidance of J Records' Clive Davis, the mastermind behind Whitney Houston's meteoric rise, Jazmine Sullivan's Fearless meets every expectation. Her instrument is well presented in a suite of eclectic songs as unexpected and welcome as the weight, maturity and skill of a vocal talent twice her age. More than an astonishing voice, Jazmine Sullivan proves to be a storyteller of rare talent, the kind that leaves you breathless for more for decades to come.

The Philly songstress has been patiently waiting in the wings since her appearance on It's Showtime at the Apollo as an eleven-year old wunderkind singing "Accept What God Allows." The thunderous applause of the cynical Apollo audience carried the youngster to Stevie Wonder's attention, where the icon's anointing announced her as one to watch. Jive Records heeded the call, signing her at 15 and then having absolutely no idea of what to do with a teenage girl whose voice carried all the blues and passion of a woman 20 to 30 years her senior. The Jazmine Sullivan material that has leaked over the years partially derived from those early sessions and from various live performances in Philly and London, where Sullivan is already a legend. Listening to the mythic unreleased Jazmine Sullivan sessions makes you appreciate the courage and vision of Berry Gordy, who was presented with a similar marketing challenge with a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson (listen to MJ's "Who's Loving You" to gain an understanding of what I mean). Jive wasn't as courageous as Motown and marketing appeared utterly vexed by a mega-watt adolescent talent who clearly wasn't about to be in her bra and panties on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Jazmine eventually moved on from Jive, toured as an independent soloist and began a career as a hit-making songwriter for other artists, including Christina Milian for "Say I." Meanwhile, the internet helped to create an underground movement of cult followers of Jazmine's music, sharing concert footage, YouTube videos and enough music files to warrant a multi-media box set. By the time the J Records signing and release of Fearless was announced, debates over who had the better version of "Resentment" -- Beyonce or Jazmine Sullivan -- was the stuff of web forum legend.

Fearless may challenge some fans possessing those roomier ballads that allowed Jazmine to stretch and indulge a penchant for runs with reckless abandon. With A-list producers like Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse), Missy Elliott, Ivan "Orthodox" Barias and Calvin "Ransum" Higgins (Musiq) at the helm, Jazmine has been reined in a bit by songs whose construction is much more compactly arranged and produced than her underground work. Personally, I think this is for the best as it allows the uninitiated to enjoy and discover Jazmine with repeated listens rather than just be in awe of her once or twice and then saving her for those occasions when "they want to hear all that carrying on." Sullivan's self-penned material also benefits from these obvious steps toward more accessibility. Jazmine's voice sits nicely in the mix of compositions that accentuate her raspy mahogany alto and allow listeners to hear every Sullivan lyric, word for blessed word. Her trademark riffs are still present and the inclusion of Jazmine's signature big ballad, "In Love With Another Man," ensure that new listeners get a heavy dose of what made the rest of us fall in love with Jazmine Sullivan years ago.

Much has been said about Sullivan's remarkable Lauyrn Hill-meets-Kim Burrell vocals, but less has been said about her prowess as a gifted storyteller. The off-putting title of "Bust Your Windows" is far from the ghetto mess the title hints at and is instead an intricate tango expressing the complex pain of a respectable, but heartbroken, woman inexplicably moved to property damage by shocking infidelity. The epic build of "In Love With Another Man" is a compositional triumph and one of the most honest lyrics ever written. A tale well known or experienced by most adults, "In Love With Another Man" expresses in first-person the emotional anguish and illogical decision of choosing an unhealthy partner over the one who's "perfect." With a killer hip hop flow sung completely in the pocket, "Call Me Guilty" is the humorless other side of Anthony Hamilton's "I Used to Love Someone" and Macy Gray's "I Committed Murder," a domestic violence soap opera that ends in murder without remorse. "Lions, Tigers and Bears" remixes a fairytale line in both music and lyric to address not childhood fears, but adult ones. Jazmine reminds us that Fearless proves a misnomer when it comes to the storied animals of love and commitment, the dark wolves scarily lurking in the black forest of the adult ID. Throughout Fearless, even in the mid- and up-tempo cuts like "My Foolish Hand" and the number #1 hit single, "Need U Bad," spot-on sensitivity to adult blues and yearnings are always close at hand in Jazmine's lyrical expressions.

On an album that includes credible shots at the sounds of The Beatles, Motown and Phil Spector it's saddening to report that there are any flounders on Fearless. The two exceptions to the magnificence of Sullivan's debut come in obvious, probably fear-driven nods to the urban youth market. The insipid synth pop of "Dream Big" and "After The Hurricane" are teeth gnashing moments to say the least. I can only imagine that their rote inclusion is owed to a jittery A&R rep (OMG there's nothing here for urban radio!) at J or Sullivan's own young, potentially trend-influenced ears. Outside of these cuts, there is nothing else on radio like the rest of Fearless, which is what makes Sullivan's project so close to being a benchmark classic on par with the The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Maybe that's why "Big Dreams" and "After The Hurricane" were thrown in as extra salt in a perfectly seasoned stew, to remind us just why we hate anxious major label meddling. Luckily, Jazmine Sullivan's talent is label proof. With Fearless and all that came before it, Sullivan has already proven she can be a top chef star, with or without their itchy hands fumbling around in her kitchen. Highly Recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson

 
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