Jazmine Sullivan’s voice might be my favorite instrument of the fall. It’s warm, well-textured, and big authentically, naturally big. She can really command a pair of speakers with it, and her newest album, Love Me Back, is full of great vocal showcases: Listen to the last minute or so of “Excuse Me,” a throwback soul number written with Missy Elliott, and you’ll see what I mean. When you’re 23 and possessed of one of the most impressive voices in the field, there’s not much reason to be shy about it.
This makes it a little strange to talk about Sullivan’s “restraint,” but I think that’s the story wrapped up in the voice. Even when she draws back into a sad, weary lilt — and she does that plenty, because weariness and heartbreak are her eternal topics — there’s still power in the voice; you can hear it even when it’s not in use. It leaves a lot of her songs sounding like they’re on the edge of some volcanic eruption, one she’s taking deep breaths and keeping cool about. Maybe that’s why some of her most successful singles dance around a similar line. “Bust Your Windows” is an icy fox-trot — about going off and busting up a cheating lover’s stuff. “10 Seconds” has her counting how long another not-so-great lover has to get out the door. “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles),” the first single from Love Me Back, had her shaking her head at the not-so-great lover she keeps coming back to. In all of them, the voice seems to be reminding you that the person singing is tough and full of feeling and could go wild on you and your windows at any second, and God help you if that happens — but she’s going to summon up her poise and speak her mind before she goes there. People call a lot of soul voices “world-weary” or “aged,” and yes, Sullivan can sing and write like she’s been around a lot longer than she has, but she earns those adjectives in a particular way: She usually seems weary of the person she’s singing to, aged by the person she’s singing to, and not prepared to waste time yelling about it. It’s not life that’s putting a rasp in her voice — evidently it’s that guy.
Of course, that’s not all Sullivan does. Her voice is flexible, too, and Love Me Back has her sounding good in a few different modes. The album might not be quite as fresh or coherent as its predecessor, 2008’s Fearless, but I’ve been loving its scattershot approach to the idea of being “retro.” A lot of R&B singers do pastiches of a single era, but the songs here work more like crate-diggers, picking bits from throughout history and tying them together: dusty classics, cozy throwback hip-hop beats, stagy soul numbers, even an homage to Vanity 6 and Prince (“Don’t Make Me Wait”). On that one, Sullivan’s voice goes high, thin, and airy to match the chirpy early eighties funk — high, thin, and airy! These things are pretty much the opposite of her usual, well-anchored charms: Spending a song up in the clouds would seem like plain-old showing off, if it weren’t so straightforwardly good.
The danger of a voice like that is getting albums full of great performances in a pointless void, a fate Love Me Back steers mostly clear of; the warmth and weight of the songwriting and production live up to the singing. They might not deliver on some of the taller orders that have been thrown at Sullivan, like comparisons to Lauryn Hill. But I’m not sure she needs to be pushing at the edges of anything fresh when she’s this good at conjuring the world as it is — not the next thing, but just the dimensions of this thing, now.