It's hard to imagine a new artist who has had more love from the music world than 23-year-old Jazmine Sullivan. The Philadelphia native's 2008 debut album Fearless bowed at No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and spawned three Top 10 singles: "Need You Bad" (which topped Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart, the first time a debuting female artist had achieved this in nearly four years), "Bust Your Windows," and "Lions, Tigers & Bears." She has racked up seven Grammy Award nominations, including "Best New Artist," "Best R&B Contemporary R&B Album," and nods for each of the aforementioned singles, as well as for "In Love With Another Man." In addition, Fearless, which Sullivan co-wrote and executive produced, earned Sullivan a heap of critical praise, including Elle magazine's observation that Sullivan "swings deep and wide like Sarah Vaughn, tears it up like Mary J., and emanates the lady-preacher seriousness of Lauryn Hill."
So it goes without saying that anticipation for a new album from this one-of-a-kind talent has been running high. Sullivan delivers beyond expectations on Love Me Back - a vibrant, musically diverse collection that sets soulful R&B melodies to inventive, hip-hop-inspired beats. The album is a rich showcase for Sullivan's powerhouse vocals and unique storytelling gifts on songs like "10 Seconds," "Redemption," "Good Enough," and "U Get On My Nerves," a duet with her friend Ne-Yo. Once again, Sullivan co-wrote every song, collaborating with her early champions Missy Elliott and Salaam Remi, as well as Ne-Yo, Toby Gad, Chuck Harmony, No-ID, Anthony Bell, and Cainon Lamb, who bring out the best in this self-assured performer whom Vibe has called "every inch the soul star."
Where Fearless boiled over with struggle and heartache, Love Me Back brims with joy and confidence. "I think you see a softer side of me," she says. "When I wrote Fearless, I had just ended a really tough relationship, which set the tone because I was angry, so I wrote songs like 'Bust Your Windows.' This album is a lot lighter. Of course I still have trying times, but, for the most part, I'm happy and that's reflected in the album."
Sullivan's positive mood is apparent on the exuberant love songs "Stuttering," "Excuse Me," "Love You Long Time," and "Don't Make Me Wait," which boasts an '80s-style rhythmic backdrop that wouldn't sound out of place on a Prince album. "I wanted to show my sexy, fun side," Sullivan says, "and I wanted to do something with that '80s-type of sound." Then there's the album's first two singles, the Missy Elliott-produced "Holding You Down (Goin' In Circles)," and the "you-done-me-wrong"-themed "10 Seconds." "I knew I wanted to do a song in the vein of 'Bust Your Windows' but I wasn't in a 'Bust Your Windows' type of place," she says of "10 Seconds." "So I tried to think of what the older Jaz would do if that situation presented itself. I wouldn't necessarily react as quickly as I did before. Now you've got 10 seconds to get the hell out," she says with a laugh. "So I've grown up just a little bit!"
Other highlights are the thoughtful ballad "Famous," which could be about Sullivan's incredible success over the past two years, but which she says is relatable to everyone. "We all want to be recognized," she says. "Everyone wants to be seen and heard, so I wanted to speak to that on the song." Sullivan returns to the self-empowerment theme of Fearless with the arena-friendly "Good Enough," which serves as a pep talk to a woman in a situation where she isn't being appreciated. "I feel like people need those reminders and it's my responsibility as an artist to give it to them," she says. "If you know people are going to be listening to your music, you should put positive things in their ear that can help them out."
One of the album's most unforgettable tracks is "Redemption," an epic tale of violence told from the point of view of two characters, a female drug addict and an abusive male, that Sullivan sings convincingly from both perspectives. "The music in that song was very dark," she says, "and I knew I had to write something powerful. It couldn't just be a love song; the words had to be as meaningful as the music. The story built as I was writing it. It's almost like I wasn't really in control, I was just being given words to create this story."
Sullivan has always been inspired to create and share stories, whether through her songwriting or singing. Her soulful vocal style was nurtured by early years singing in church. At age five, she was singing in the children's choir, a few years later with the adults. Sullivan's exposure to secular music was initially limited, but she fell in love with it after her mother began schooling her in the classic R&B sounds of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and Phyllis Hyman. Clear about her love for music and singing, Sullivan looked for local places in Philadelphia to perform. One of her first stops was Black Lily, a musical collective started by The Jazzyfastnastees in the mid-to-late '90s when Philly was birthing a movement of new artists including Jill Scott, The Roots, Floetry, and Kindred. It was through performances at Black Lily that word of mouth about Sullivan's amazing vocal talents quickly spread. While in Miami recording her demo project for Jive Records, Sullivan ran into Missy Elliott and subsequently formed their recording relationship. After signing with J Records, Sullivan released Fearless in September 2008, and watched it hit "Best Of" lists by Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Associated Press.
Over the last two years, Sullivan has also guested on tracks by Fantasia, Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke, and her idol, Mary J. Blige, and written songs for Christina Milian, Jennifer Hudson, and Monica. She has toured with Maxwell and Ne-Yo, and recently hit the road with Blige for the 11-city "Music Saved My Life" Tour in October 2010. In addition to the seven Grammy nominations, Sullivan has been nominated for three BET Awards (taking home the BET Centric Award in 2009), an Image Award for "Outstanding New Artist," and two Soul Train Awards, including one for "Best New Artist."
Now she's excited to move forward and launch a new chapter with Love Me Back. "I want people to hear what I have to say," she says. "I feel like I'm a vessel and I have packages to deliver. Sometimes that load feels heavy but the things I have to say are meant to touch people. I have no choice but to do this."