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Jazmine Sullivan has authored the kind of songbook that could form the basis of a jukebox musical. Given the versatility the R&B artist has displayed as a gospel-reared and stage-trained powerhouse vocalist, the production would require a large and exceptionally talented ensemble to do right by the source material. Stymied before she was able to release an album recorded in her mid-teens, the Philadelphian broke through in her late teens as a songwriter with "Say I" (2006), a Top 40 hit for Christina Milian. Shortly after that, she launched her career as a headliner with the similarly successful "Need U Bad," the first single off Fearless (2008), a Top Ten album that garnered seven Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Album and Best New Artist. Although Sullivan has released only two full-lengths since then, namely Love Me Back (2010) and Reality Show (2015), they have also been met with widespread acclaim, high chart placement, and additional Grammy nominations. All along, Sullivan has cultivated a substantial secondary discography as a songwriter and featured vocalist, underscored with a number one R&B/hip-hop hit co-written for Monica ("Everything to Me") and a Grammy-nominated duet with PJ Morton ("Built for Love"). Despite being an outlier -- she's never truly adhered to contemporary trends or squarely traditional R&B -- Sullivan has always been relevant, up to and including the Grammy-nominated Heaux Tales (2021), her first release of the 2020s.
Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Jazmine Sullivan spent part of her upbringing residing in Fairmount Park's Historic Strawberry Mansion, where her father was employed as a curator. Her mother and eventual co-manager, Pamela Sullivan, was involved with music as a background vocalist, and in 1984, under the name Pamela Joy, released the single "Think Fast," an enduring favorite among deep-digging club DJs. Jazmine started singing in gospel choirs as a youngster. At the age of 11, she made her national television debut on Showtime at the Apollo by performing Rev. Richard White's "Accept What God Allows" with a personal touch. While she was a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Sullivan signed a deal with Jive Records. An album recorded for the label was shelved, and she was dropped from the roster just after she graduated. Sullivan was moving forward despite the setback. The singer landed a featured appearance on Kindred the Family Soul's "I Am." She led off the 2004 compilation Soul in the City with the self-composed "Season to Love." Also in 2004, she provided background vocals on Fantasia's Free Yourself, an LP released only a couple days after the BBC broadcast a set of four songs Sullivan recorded for Gilles Peterson's program. One of the tracks, "Braid Your Hair," was issued commercially at the end of 2005 on The BBC Sessions, Vol. 1 (which also contained performances by fellow Philly natives the Roots and Bilal).
Sullivan scored her first hit as a songwriter in 2006 with Christina Milian's "Say I," a Top 40 pop hit in the U.S. and a number four smash in the U.K. J Records subsequently signed her to a recording contract. Sullivan made her major-label debut in May 2008 with "Need U Bad." The yearning, reggae-flavored ballad, produced by Missy Elliott and Cainon Lamb, topped Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart, crossed into the Top 40, and pushed Fearless to number six on the Billboard 200 immediately after that parent album was issued in September (one week before Jennifer Hudson's self-titled album hit shelves with another Sullivan-Elliott collaboration, "I'm His Only Woman," featuring Fantasia). Fearless yielded two more Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hits, both theatrical collaborations with Salaam Remi. Those two songs, "Bust Your Windows" and "Lions, Tigers & Bears," along with "Need U Bad" and "In Love with Another Man" -- the latter a gospel-rooted belter written with and produced by Anthony Bell -- were all nominated for Grammys, spread across the categories of Best R&B Song, Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance, and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Fearless itself was nominated for Best R&B Album, and Sullivan was up for Best New Artist (won that year by Adele), one of the Big Four categories.
Sullivan's featured roles and songwriting credits increased exponentially before her follow-up. Her name appeared on the R&B/hip-hop chart again through Ace Hood's "Champion," and it was later at the very top, as she co-wrote Monica's "Everything to Me," another collaboration with Elliott and Lamb. Furthermore, Sullivan contributed to other tracks by high-profile rappers including Snoop Dogg, Wale, and Jadakiss, as well as material from R&B stars Robin Thicke and Mary J. Blige. In July 2010, mere weeks after "Everything to Me" finished its reign, Sullivan, Elliott, and Lamb struck yet again with "Holding You Down (Goin' in Circles)." The lead single issued ahead of Sullivan's second album, Love Me Back, it became the singer's fourth Top Ten R&B/hip-hop single as a headliner. Love Me Back arrived that November and peaked on the Billboard 200 at number 17. Even more varied than the debut, the LP incorporated the in-the-red soul throwback "10 Seconds" -- a Top 20 R&B/hip-hop single made with Salaam Remi -- along with the chilling and creatively spun tale "Redemption," the anxiety-ridden love ballad "Stuttering," and the candy-coated pop-funk track "Don't Make Me Wait." "Holding You Down (Goin' in Circles)" netted Sullivan another Grammy nomination for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance.
During the first week of 2011, Sullivan announced that she was stepping back from music for an indefinite period. While four years passed before she offered her third album, she placed songs during the interim on albums by Monica, Tamia, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, and Faith Evans, among others, and during the same time duetted with Bilal on Robert Glasper Experiment's "You're My Everything." As with her two previous albums, Sullivan previewed her third full-length and first for RCA, Reality Show, with multiple singles. This time, she charted with "Dumb," featuring a verse from Meek Mill, and the acoustic ballad "Forever Don't Last," produced by Chuck Harmony. Those 2014 arrivals set up Reality Show for a January 2015 release date. Predictably unpredictable in its musical and lyrical range, the album landed at number 12 on the Billboard 200, and like Fearless -- which was certified gold at the end of the year -- crowned the R&B/hip-hop chart. "Let It Burn," a matte-black slow jam produced by Key Wane, trumped the preceding singles by climbing to number four on the Adult R&B Songs chart, and was then shortlisted for two Grammys, Best R&B Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance. Reality Show earned a nomination for Best R&B Album.
As ever an in-demand collaborator, Sullivan clocked studio time over the next few years with Frank Ocean, GoldLink, Mali Music, and Blige, co-writing four songs -- including two singles -- for the latter singer's 2017 album Strength of a Woman. Months after that LP was released, Sullivan and Bryson Tiller connected for the title song to the second-season soundtrack of Issa Rae's Insecure. Sullivan in 2019 co-wrote and sang on PJ Morton's "Built for Love," another Grammy-nominated recording for Best Traditional R&B Performance, and graced both Kindness' "Hard to Believe" and Anderson .Paak's "Good Heels." She returned as a lead artist the next year with "Lost One" and the Grammy-nominated "Pick Up Your Feelings," and continued in early 2021 with the H.E.R. collaboration "Girl Like Me" and Heaux Tales, a Grammy-nominated EP containing those three singles. ~ Andy Kellman