From CTRL to HeauxTales

I have listened to Jazmine Sullivan’s Tiny Desk Concert more times than I can count. If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor – it is below, you’re welcome!

I love it. The storytelling and honesty are unparalleled. I was introduced to her new album via her TinyDesk, and when I started digging into the entirety of HeauxTales, I was similarly blown away. She is sharing such vulnerable stories from women – rarely shared – and with so much empathy for the women. Usually I think when these stories are shared, they are accompanied by some level of shame (a number of people have written about this better than I have – this one from Pitchfork was my favorite) and she shared stories in a way that showed the full humanity of each person. So amazing.

I haven’t loved an album this much since SZA’s CTRL. When it came out in 2017, I think I played it every day for weeks – maybe even months?! The main difference that I saw between the two albums is that HeauxTales is a women-only album. There are no men on the tracks. I love the focus that gives to the listener. While CTRL doesn’t have any songs only by men, it does have a number of songs with prominent male rappers featured on them. I distinctly remember reading this one critique of CTRL that the men who were featured took too much control (hehe) over the lyrics and transformed some songs that were supposed to be liberating for women into something else entirely.

Ok, but back to the similarities. The songs that I hear talking to each other on both albums are Girl Like Me & Normal Girl. What I hear from both is this pressure to be who they think the person in their life wants them to be; instead of focusing on becoming their authentic selves. I take it out of the romantic context and see both songs talking about the pressure to conform. I can relate so strongly to this.

The specificity of both of their albums – each focuses on specific stories shared by women – also gives them a weightiness. I am a Revisionist History superfan right now and it reminds me of what Malcolm Gladwell shared in the episode The King of Tears. A reason why country music moves us so much is the specificity of the story told in the lyrics. This is completely different from traditional pop songs that are generalized to mean everything to everyone. He highlights how rap music actually mirrors country music in this way – it’s specific and thus more powerful. He didn’t dig into neo-soul in his podcast (which is the category I put Jazmine and SZA’s album into), but I think if he would have he would have seen a similar trend in neo-soul as he did for rap and country.

Both albums also come at a point of significant transition for me. During CTRL, I was just getting started at Precursor. HeauxTales comes at the tail end of a pandemic where a lot of transition. Very grateful to have this music to guide me during this time.

What album got you through a big transition in your life?

What is giving me life this week?

I don’t know if you ever listen to the NPR podcast, Code Switch, but they have a segment each week called “Songs Giving Us Life“. There used to be a similar segment on the NPR Politics Podcast with Sam Sanders during the Hilary/Trump campaign, and his was called “Can’t Let it Go.” Both segments were/are so great. Well, today is Friday and I had a really intense week so I’m going to do a “What is giving you life this week” for me!

I watched Notorious BIG’s Netflix documentary last night “I Got a Story to Tell” and it started getting me thinking about how music influences people across time, across continents. I loved that his neighbor was a jazz musician who walked BIG through drum segments. I loved that his uncle in Jamaica was a rapper. I loved that he listened to country westerns. What an eclectic life that should not be reduced to “gangsta rap” or whatever new term there is to describe black men who choose to engage in musical careers.

I was introduced to Camilo’s new record called Mis Manos this morning and it is fire! His first song, Millones, sounds like I’m in Colombia (which is where he is from). Which reminds me of what P. Diddy was sharing when he was collaborating with BIG. He wanted his music to transport you somewhere when you listened to it – for the song itself to feel like how you feel when you’re watching a movie.

Camilo’s second song, KESI, feels like afrobeats! If you don’t believe me, listen to it first and then listen to Burna Boy. The african influence should come at no surprise to you if you know anything about the history of Colombia. If you don’t, this in your invitation to dig deeper.

At the end of the album, he travels to the DR with a bachata song, BEBE. I love bachata. One of the main reasons is because when I used to go to salsa clubs, it was honestly the only dance I was really good at. It’s also just absolutely beautiful music.

Ok, that’s all I got for what is giving me life this week. Happy Friday!

Sydney Paige Thomas