When last we left Jazmine Sullivan, she was singing about smashing the windows of her ex-boyfriend's car with a baseball bat while cursing him to hell.
Less than two years later, we find her singing about counting to 10 before she beans some guy with whatever heavy object she can get her hands on. Or stalking a married guy until he winds up pulling a gun on her. Or going bi and obsessing over a female singer, whom she seduces, then abuses in every way she can.
Talk about your drama queens. Over the course of her brief, exciting career, Sullivan has made a name for herself by singing songs so overwrought and plot-heavy, they suggest a Tyler Perry screenplay, recast as an operetta, with Mary J. Blige singing all the parts.
Clearly, that m.o. is working for Sullivan — both commercially and creatively.
"Bust Your Windows," from her aptly named debut, "Fearless," became a major hit in '09, even inspiring a tart version on "Glee." The disk also ranked as one of that year's most clearly defined R&B debuts. Not only were its lyrics theatrical (Sullivan's mom is a playwright), her vocal cadences proved sweeping and broad enough for Broadway. It didn't hurt that her husky timbre has character to burn.
Small wonder Sullivan has upped the ante on her second disk. "Love Me Back" finds her often singing at the top of her range, playing every song like a grand scene. In the hip-hop-tinged "Holding You Down," the lyrics find her going through "two boxes of tissues," while her vocals rail with a Joplinesque sense of desperation.
These days, that counts as a refreshing point of view. The ego-boosting demands of hip hop so influenced R&B over the last decade, it overshadowed any truly wounded expressions of love. Another vulnerable cut, "Stuttering," benefits by tapping into the long history of stuttering as a pop hook. See: "My Generation"
to "Poker Face."
Sullivan excels at that kind of awkwardness, to the point where even when she sings about a fully requited love (in the vintage soul-style song "Excuse Me"), she still sounds like she's begging.
Not that she spends the whole disk on her knees. Sullivan is just as convincing in a zipless fling song like "Don't Make Me Wait," which channels '80s funk-pop Prince, while making lyrical reference to Vanity 6. In "Love You Long Time," Sullivan taps her inner Beyoncé to create an R&B march.
She's better, however, when in turmoil, as in "Redemption," whose lyrics rival Eminem for depravity, or in "U Get on My Nerves" which offers a sequel to "Bust Your Windows." Like all good dramatists, Sullivan whets your appetite for more.