2016: The Year in Charts

Jazmine Sullivan on 'Reality Show' Return: 'I Just Felt Like I Had a Story to Share'

Shane McCauley
Jazmine Sullivan

There's a song on Jazmine Sullivan's new album Reality Show called "Forever Don't Last." It's mostly just acoustic guitar and vocals, starting with an admission of defeat -- "I had high hopes for us, baby" -- and moving toward resigned acceptance, as Sullivan sings, "I guess forever doesn't last too long these days."

In the context of relationships, this is a tragic statement. In terms of Sullivan's career, though, there's reason to be glad that forever is short: In January 2011, the singer announced on Twitter that she was taking some time away from music. Almost exactly four years later, she's back with 12 new songs.

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At an event Monday promoting the album before its release, Sullivan interspersed acoustic performances with video footage discussing her hiatus. The film covered her reason for taking time off ("I couldn't find anything lovable about me") and her battle to return. When it got bad, she "considered doing drugs," but instead found solace in her faith. And also in her music: The songs she started writing two years ago are sturdy and compact. On Reality Show, these tracks sound modern and radio-ready; in a small room at her release event, Sullivan showed their bluesy core, performing with just a guitarist by her side.

Sullivan always knew she was coming back to music. She tells Billboard, "When I had my little moment on Twitter, I worded it like it was just a break." But a lot of people didn't see it that way -- "everybody was like, she quit, she quit!" That break "ended up being a little longer than I ever expected. I never thought it would be four years later...But that's life. Some things just don't go the way you plan."

(While she was gone, Sullivan's name appeared on songs for Monica and Mary J. Blige, but she says those songs were written before 2011.)

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Four years is an eternity in the fast-moving world of popular music. Look back at who topped the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in 2010, when Sullivan released her second album, Love Me Back: You'll find Melanie Fiona, Monica and Alicia Keys. Erykah Badu and Sade also put out respected full-lengths that year. Those names didn't make a dent in 2014.

But Sullivan likes how the musical landscape has developed during her absence. "I feel like it's opening up for different sounds, and I'm always about that -- I love the mixing of genres." She singles out Lana Del Rey and Frank Ocean, commending them for "bridging different musical worlds."

Despite the four-year gap in Sullivan's discography, there's some continuity to the new album, which has contributions from Salaam Remi, Anthony Bell and Chuck Harmony -- all of whom helped out on Love Me Back. But there's also new blood: Key Wane worked on a number of tracks. (Wane's recent credits include Drake's "All Me," Beyonce's "Partition" and Ariana Grande's "Best Mistake.") "It was cool the way [that] happened," Sullivan remembers. "For most of the album I was just picking out tracks on a CD, no names or anything...Once I got finished, they were like, 'You know you picked like five Key Wane tracks?' It was cool to have a connection with somebody and not even have met them."

Sullivan has never shied away from personal songs -- listen to her second single, the Grammy-nominated "Bust Your Windows" -- but some of the new tracks hit hard in a different way. In the past, Sullivan trafficked in modern soul; on "Mascara," she glides over a tough beat with the cadence and internal rhyme of a rapper: "My hair and my ass, babe, so what, I get my rent paid with it/ And my tits give me trips to places I can't pronounce right/ He said he'll keep it coming if I keep my body tight." "Mascara" is an intense, paranoid track about the ways women are constantly scrutinized: "I keep mascara in my pocket if I'm running to the market/ 'Cause you never know who's watching you."

The album's title reflects a related sort of scrutiny, the kind known as reality television. Reality TV is "all you see" now, Sullivan tells Billboard. "That's where society is at." It's a bold move to name an album after a medium that largely remains the butt of jokes despite its steadily increasing popularity. "I named it that because even I was affected by it," Sullivan says. "That's all I watched." (Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta in particular.)

There are similarities between making music and starring on reality television -- similarities that people often choose to overlook. "For the most part ... whatever you have that's not quite right, you don't want anybody to know," Sullivan explains. "I'm fascinated with the fact that people kind of put it all out there." This act of airing dirty laundry is looked down upon on screen, but when someone with a guitar does the same thing, it's usually praised as personal, confessional songwriting.

Still, you don't need to be up on the latest episodes of Love & Hip-Hop to appreciate Reality Show. In recent months, several artists have put out music after long absences -- Garth Brooks and D'Angelo, for instance -- and these releases usually come from a simple need. "I had been through a lot and I don't need to just sit on the stuff that I've been through," Sullivan says. "I just felt like I had a story to share."