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Singer Jazmine Sullivan gets back to work

Jazmine Sullivan stands in the doorway of her parents' Northeast Philadelphia home. Her curly tresses frame a broad smile as she waves goodbye to her makeup artist and her stylist.

Singer Jazmine Sullivan. (Shane McCauley)
Singer Jazmine Sullivan. (Shane McCauley)Read more

Jazmine Sullivan stands in the doorway of her parents' Northeast Philadelphia home. Her curly tresses frame a broad smile as she waves goodbye to her makeup artist and her stylist.

With a rehearsal in a few hours, Sullivan, 27, goes inside and settles into an armchair in front of the fireplace.

Relaxed, but slightly guarded, she readies herself for the questions she knows are coming about her three-year absence.

After an abusive relationship that stopped her rising music career in its tracks, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter is easing back into rehearsals, shows, interviews, with a new outlook.

"I was scared to death to come back," says Sullivan, sitting comfortably with legs crossed. But little by little, she's reemerging into the spotlight to fans who have been anxious for her return.

On Nov. 1, she sang the national anthem at a 76ers game. The next day, she performed at a rally for gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, with President Obama looking on. She then went on to perform intimate shows in select cities, with occasional biggies, like her show in London. And in a sure sign that she's ready, she's been releasing singles from her forthcoming RCA album, Reality Show, including "Dumb," featuring Philly rapper Meek Mill.

Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Sullivan lived in Fairmount Park's Historic Strawberry Mansion, where her father was a curator. As a sophomore at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, she landed a recording deal with Jive Records. But the label dropped her shortly after she graduated at 18. Yet within three years, Sullivan would be nominated for five Grammy awards - all for her work on her 2008 debut album, Fearless.

"That was an amazing time," she said. "In my mind, the Grammys were like the end-all, be-all."

The album's hit single , "Need U Bad," became the girl-with-a-crush anthem of the moment. In another hit, "Bust Your Windows," a woman takes revenge on an adulterer. And popular tracks such as "Lions, Tigers and Bears" exposed the vulnerability love creates in all of us.

With endorsements from rapper/producer Missy Elliott, Sullivan was the fresh face with a refreshing sound.

Riding her debut success, Sullivan released her second album, Love Me Back, in 2010. Though "Holdin' You Down (Goin' In Circles)" peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot R&B/HipHop chart, she later admitted to that she "didn't give it a push at all."

What Sullivan's fans didn't know was that as her rich and bluesy voice was taking over the airwaves, her love life was falling apart.

In January 2011, a few months after the album's release, Sullivan posted a series of tweets. She began: "I'm making an official announcement that I am taking a break from music." And then: "I promised myself when it wasn't fun anymore I wouldn't do it." And another: "I'm not saying I won't ever sing again in my life because I don't . . . believe that. But in this moment. . . right now. . . got some things to figure out."

A hiatus that was to be a few months turned into 31/2 years, leaving the R&B world wondering where one of its most promising stars was.

Though she doesn't want to go into specifics, Sullivan offers, "I was in a relationship at the time, and it was really bad."

Sullivan says it's ironic that she ended up in the kind of abusive relationship she had portrayed in songs such as "Call Me Guilty," which involves domestic abuse and violence. I'm sitting contemplating. Is it worth it, should I take it. Though at the time the song was conceived from her imagination, it soon became her reality. She admits that while recording Love Me Back, she was "kind of out of it."

The problem wasn't the music industry, she says: "The relationship was so bad that it was making everything too much for me."

Still, even after her Twitter announcement, Sullivan lived with her boyfriend on and off for the next few years before the relationship ended and she came back home from California to Philadelphia.

"I had to be around my family," Sullivan says, "just to get myself back."

In pain, emotionally scarred, Sullivan says she considered drugs to escape, but credits God and her family for getting her through.

Pam Sullivan, Jazmine's mother and co-manager, sits at the dining-room table, looking down thoughtfully as her daughter reflects. "It was really devastating to know that your child is hurting like this and she's so many miles away and so removed," she said. "She was so dedicated to making [the relationship] work, so nothing I would say would do anything."

Sullivan says her parents' 27-year marriage was her blueprint for a loving relationship. But her mother says there's a difference.

"I met my soul mate," says her mother. "My life was changing and I prayed for 'the man'."

Jazmine Sullivan jokingly clasps her hands together and whispers a prayer, then adds, there is "this fairy tale that somebody else is supposed to complete you." But she says she has learned that isn't the case.

She begins to croon Beyoncé's "Superpower," a song about a couple who complement each other. Her eyes close and the rasp of her voice envelops the living room as she adds improvisational vocal runs.

"We were making each other worse," Sullivan says of her ex. "We were taking from each other, I think."

And as for staying despite the abuse, "I can sympathize with someone in that situation and know that you should never say 'never' when feelings are involved. But I also have learned that feelings should be put into perspective when dealing with your well-being."

Walking away, she says, felt "like letting go of forever."

In September, she released the single "Forever Don't Last," a symbolic farewell to a relationship that was hard to let go of, but harder to hold on to. She just released the companion video for the song, directed by her and her mother. The song will be on her new album, Reality Show, slated to come out in January.

"I'm sure I'll look back on 'Forever Don't Last' like, 'Girl, shut up!' " she says with a laugh. " 'What are you talking about? For him? You thought that was your forever?' "

Sullivan named the album Reality Show after her guilty TV pleasure. She devoured season after season during her break, fascinated by the way the TV stars  show every part of themselves - the good, the bad, and "the ratchet."

 But Reality Show is hardly an album by a woman scorned. Most of the tracks are upbeat and dynamic, crossing genres and eras of music.

Of all her work, she's most proud of this album, and it's her mother's favorite. Though the songstress is known for her powerful vocals, she wants listeners to also take notice of her songwriting ability.

"When people hear me, they just love my voice and I appreciate it," Sullivan says. "But I want people to really see everything that I'm capable of."

Her return has been warmly embraced by fans as iconic as Stevie Wonder, one of her biggest inspirations, with whom she shared an improvisational jam session recently while promoting her album.

Sullivan is optimistic about future relationships, but "these days, I'm too busy having a love affair with myself and, of course, my music." If she's learned anything, she says, it's to trust her instincts. "You know better for yourself, and you should listen to that. And if that doesn't work - listen to your mama."

And part of her healing is also being open with her fans.

"I'm hearing that people don't really know who I am," she says. "I'm letting them in."