Heaux Tales himself is looking at something bigger, too, beyond Sullivan as a subject or a star. Her fourth album is vast and inclusive, embodying so many feminine ideas about love and sex (read “ HeauxLike “ho”) 32 minutes could reasonably be expected. Through eight songs linked by interludes spoken by different women, Heaux Tales deploys a patchwork of origins, results, thrills and catastrophes of coital indulgence in his most consistent work to date. Sullivan strategically activates his regal voice with cutting-edge, intimate and addicting stories.
One of Sullivan’s breaks from popular R&B was the 2008 revenge tango “Bust Your Windows”. The song’s despised lover is one of the many characters Sullivan would play across three albums that vibrated with drama and camp. Her music has grown from reggae and disco to boom-bap and brass band and more as she explored the lives of women and men plagued by crime, passion and addiction. Heaux Tales, on the other hand, is committed to simpler and more timeless soundscapes, like the clichés and synths of “Bodies” or the remarkable guitars of “Lost One” and “Girl Like Me”. During the relatively minimalist production and instrumentation, the album’s agency narratives are made central.
There is a direct line between the archetypal portraits Sullivan painted in the past and the more dynamic narratives here. On “Mascara”, extract from his 2015 album Reality show, Sullivan personified a proud gold digger with an attitude to match. “We all want to be that confident person,” Sullivan said of the song at the time. “And it’s hard to be like that. Because you always feel like someone is judging you. All along Heaux Taleshowever, the motivations and qualities of women who do or wish to gain material things through love and sex are viewed with more kindness and clarity. In one of the oral intermissions, a woman named Precious Daughtry says that a childhood of deprivation pushes her away from penniless men. His lyrics are followed by Sullivan’s dazzling performance of “The Other Side,” a vivid reverie of moving to Atlanta to be with a rapper who can support himself. “I just want people to take care of me / because I’ve worked enough,” she reasoned.
The prospects for the album sometimes contradict each other. On songs like “The Other Side” and the “Pricetags” assisted by Anderson .Paak, sex is a daring means of empowerment, financial or otherwise. Then, in an interlude, Sullivan’s 20-year-old friend Amanda Henderson sadly admits that seeking sex for power leaves her insecure. “Amanda’s Tale” is followed by “Girl Like Me,” in which Sullivan and HER sing the hos in Fashion Nova dresses who steal their love interests. Ho-ing goes from being a source of pride and abundance to a source of shame. Sullivan’s songwriting is nimble: these conflicting judgments and desires live in women – and both can live in one woman at a time.
All over Heaux Tales, Sullivan struggles with what can be lost and gained through sex, from a sure sense of self (“Get it together, bitch,” she said to herself on “Bodies.” “You gettin ‘sloppy.”) Looking forward crazy (“I spend my last ’cause the D-bomb,” she proudly admits on “Put It Down”). The familiar bursts of specificity in these vignettes are a feat of songwriting, and the restraint that a powerful singer like Sullivan shows in her performance is just as important. Sometimes her voice is choppy and conversational, sometimes it sounds like rap, and it’s almost always a pleasure to sing. On this album, she is both Deena Jones and Effie White; it can be easy to listen to or overwhelming. Since the crumpled first run of “Put It Down”, her most powerful vocals have been mixed into the background, as if to make her a little less superhuman.
R&B has long provided a space for women to express their sexual appetites, from fundamental dirty blues songs like Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” in 1935 (“Say I fucked all night and all night before , baby / And I just feel like I wanna fuck again “) on Adina Howard’s 1995 hit” Freak Like Me “. After six years between projects, Sullivan joined the ranks of adjacent R&B and R&B stars. ‘today like Summer Walker and SZA, who have updated the genre with music that complicates desire with messy reality. Old archetypes like The Gold Digger and new ones like The Instagram Baddie are starting to crumble, leaving fuller women in their wake. Amanda Henderson, Sullivan’s friend, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she was nervous to include her revelation on Heaux Tales, but has since found relief in the number of fans who have logged in. Even in the way Sullivan’s Tiny Desk was arranged – with lush instrumental breaks, opportunities for his backing vocalists to take the limelight, and a HER appearance – it’s clear. Heaux Tales is community.
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