This week we look at three releases from contemporary female American artists – R&B artists Jazmine Sullivan and Dawn Richard, and actor Olivia Rodrigo, who’s rapidly become a pop superstar in 2021.
Olivia Rodrigo came to prominence as an actor, appearing in Bizaardvark and High School Musical. She signed a recording contract in 2020, and has quickly become a pop superstar – her debut single ‘Driver’s License’ debuted at number one on Billboard, while third single ‘Good 4 U’ also debuted at number one. Her debut project was initially slated as an EP, but was quickly upgraded to a full album after the success of ‘Driver’s License’.
Rodrigo is supported by producer and co-writer Dan Nigro, who’s previously produced excellent pop songs like Sky Ferreira’s ‘You’re Not The One’, Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘When I Needed You’, and Caroline Polachek’s ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Rodrigo’s only 18, and hasn’t necessarily found her own style. There are echoes of other 21st century female artists like Paramore, Lorde, and Taylor Swift, while the bridge of ”Driver’s License’ sounds like Lana Del Rey. Sour is also brief at 34 minutes, and every song is about the same failed relationship.
But that’s the bad news – it’s easy to take Rodrigo’s side on these tales of romantic angst, as she’s a likeable and talented vocalist. There’s at least an EP’s worth of excellent songs. Along with the three singles, there’s a strong opening with ‘Brutal’ – like ‘Good 4 U’ it’s a guitar rocker with Rodrigo spitting out a laundry-list of complaints – “And they’d all be so disappointed/’Cause who am I, if not exploited?” ‘Traitor’ is also strong, a piano ballad that rhymes “date her” and “traitor”. The second half of the record is less memorable, making Sour a strong debut but not an all-time classic.
Sour has made Rodrigo into a pop superstar, and hopefully she delivers a classic pop record to match her newly found status next time around.
We’re living through a golden age of arty R&B at the moment, with artists like Janelle Monae, Jamila Woods, and Frank Ocean making great music. Dawn Richard started her career as a member of Danity Kane, and has released a string of critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records over the last decade.
The title of Richard’s sixth album is a reference to a tradition in New Orleans, where parade watchers can dance along in a second line. The album is interspersed with interviews with Richard’s mother, recalling her Louisiana heritage – Richard’s family left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Richard grew up in New Orleans – her father is Frank Richard, lead singer of 1970s and 1980s soul-funk band Chocolate Milk.
Second Line isn’t an especially coherent album. Richard’s an imaginative artist who’s able to deliver everything from pop bangers like ‘Boomerang’ and ‘Jacuzzi’ to atmospheric and arty material like ‘The Potter’ and ‘Perfect Storm’ – always my ideal of an enjoyable artist.
Richard’s possibly too full of ideas for her own good, but she’s making consistently strong records.
Philadelphian R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan hasn’t made a record since 2015’s acclaimed Reality Show. Heaux Tales is a 33-minute EP that still reached #4 on the US charts. With an appearance singing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, Sullivan’s star is clearly in the ascendancy despite her slow release rate.
The eight songs of Heaux Tales are interspersed with monologues from Sullivan’s friends. I’ve never heard a record where the dialogue is so integral to the record, the interviews provide perspective on sex and empowerment. The interviews are often disarmingly pragmatic, matching Sullivan’s lyrics. In ‘Precious’ Tale’, Precious Daughtry states “I’m not dealing with anyone who does not have money/Because I know my worth”, before Sullivan opens ‘The Other Side’ with “I’ve got dreams to buy expensive things”.
It’s hard to become immersed in Heaux Tales as a musical experience when it’s so brief and interspersed with dialogue, but the songs stand up individually. Lead single ‘Pick Up Your Feelings’ mixes the smooth neo-soul of Lauryn Hill with a powerhouse vocal performance. The vocals are only accompanied by solitary guitar on ‘Lost One’, while Anderson .Paak cameos on the full production of ‘Pricetags’.
Heaux Tales is a little brief and unsatisfying musically, but it’s also effective at getting its themes across.