For the ladies at least, making a decent R&B debut disc isn't as easy as it looks. First, you have to decide on a business model: Do you follow the already well-worn trail blazed by Rihanna (this usually involves Timbaland in some capacity, plus questionable '80s samples and Ne-Yo)? Or do you, like Jazmine Sullivan, follow the road slightly less traveled, and pretend to be Amy Winehouse pretending to be Lauryn Hill?
Co-produced by Salaam Remi, who was responsible for a good portion of Winehouse's "Back to Black," "Fearless" mixes the usual party anthems and old-school R&B, with an emphasis on old school. He and the 21-year-old Sullivan, who wrote most everything here, have labored, and with some success, to make a snappy, intensely human debut.
"Fearless" is a mix of awkward-but-novel devices (reggae beats, Daft Punk samples) and nakedly confessional songwriting. Sullivan has a big, churchy voice she doesn't yet know how to harness, and spends most of "Fearless" following it around. The overall effect is raw and intimate: "Fear" catalogues Sullivan's neuroses (one can relate right up to the part where she sings, "I'm scared to think that the label dropped me / I'm scared to think of my album flopping"); "Lions, Tigers and Bears" is a chest-thumping showstopper; "Bust Your Windows" is an urban retelling of "Before He Cheats" ("You know I did it 'cause I left my mark / Wrote my initials with the crowbar") that will make you miss the comparative subtleties of the original.
-- Allison Stewart (Sept. 2008)