Keyshia Cole's brand of R&B isn't the manufactured, saccharine pap that's choking the marketplace. The Oakland-born singer (who currently resides in Atlanta) takes things back to the meaning of those letters that mark her genre: straight-up rhythm and blues, without the garish vocal gymnastics.
For listeners sick of the American Idol universe of pitch-perfect songs with no soul, Cole offers the antithesis. Her gutsy voice sounds best when it's a bit off by conventional standards, as on the warble/trill in the chorus of "Love," where a delivery that's initially unstable opens up into pure emotion. Lyrically, her songs project a personal honesty, as she pens relatable hood anthems like "I Should Have Cheated" ("As long as you accuse me of cheating, I might as well have . . .") from her 2005 debut The Way It Is.
While she is already a force in R&B, Cole is poised to become more of a household name when her second album, Just Like You, drops in late September. Fans have been allowed only a small taste of the disc so far — but luckily it's a juicy bit. Her new single, "Let It Go" (produced by Missy Elliott), recently topped the Billboard R&B chart and hit No. 12 on the Hot 200. The song lifts instruments from '70s soul smolderer "Juicy Fruit" by Mtume, better known to young people as the groove to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" (lines of which are referenced on this new song). "Let It Go" finds Cole in her comfortable role as love counselor, cautioning ladies to get rid of men who don't treat them right. Lil' Kim kicks a sassy verse about snagging your man, and Elliott makes the appropriate interjections throughout: "Daaaaaaaamn, that's hot!"
If the rest of Just Like You is merely half as sizzling as this initial offering, it'll be stronger than just about anything else urban pop has managed to throw out there this year. Cole's vocal ad libs on recent collaborations for albums by Diddy ("Last Night") and Sean Paul ("Give It Up to Me") have been a cut above the usual, and we're venturing that she's saving her tightest ideas for her own record.
Cole's star quality is compounded by the fact that fans' interest in her life goes beyond just the music. The second season of her BET reality show Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is starts in October. Last season, she connected with viewers by revealing, among other things, the dysfunction in having to look out for a crazy sister and a mother who's just getting out of jail. Yet despite all the cameras, the singer has somehow managed to keep much of her love life private. Little is known about the subjects of affection in her songs, although she's a popular topic on urban gossip blogs like www.bossip.com and Web sites like www.allhiphop.com. For the past two years, rumors have persisted about both her general romantic hookups and a specific engagement to rap star Young Jeezy — the latter of which she denied in an interview with KMEL DJ Big Von.
The Cole brand is also a versatile one as it tilts toward mainstream crowds. There's no other way to explain the unexpected gig she'll do the day before she comes to San Francisco: Singing the national anthem with the Voices of Unity Youth Choir at the NFL season opener in Indianapolis, right after John Mellencamp's performance.
It's but one of many signs that Keyshia Cole is ready to win the game.