A few weeks ago, Kelly Rowland released “Kisses Down Low,” the latest single to be featured on her tentatively-titled upcoming album, “Year of the Woman.” The track is about what the title implies; oral sex. Ever since the success of Rowland’s urban hit “Motivation” with Lil Wayne, sexually suggestive tracks have become a central piece of her repertoire. Comments from Twitter users seemed to be all in the same vein of “She’s too talented for this,” “It’s the same old stuff” or “We don’t need a female Trey Songz.” I found the comparison to R&B heartthrob Songz, who isn’t even Rowland’s contemporary, most telling. Songz rose to mainstream fame with sexual club-friendly ditties, but after about 3 albums full of them, audiences seemed to become fatigued and unimpressed. Dedicated fans who believed in his talent were disappointed that he all but reduced himself to a sex symbol. Likewise, Rowland seems to be receiving the same reaction. It’s been touch-and-go for the former Destiny’s Child; she just hasn’t hit her stride as a solo act. It’s all quite puzzling really. Kelly Rowland is beautiful, can actually sing without auto-tune and went through the same success boot-camp as megastar Beyonce`. If anyone would know how to follow the yellow-brick road to Beyonce`-like Oz, it should be Kelly Rowland. So what gives? Let me tell you. With Kelly’s career, for every problem that’s solved, another one arises.
Rowland was all set to be a thriving solo star; the launch from Destiny’s Child was carefully planned. In preparation for an eventual 2005 disbandment, DC briefly separated at their “Survivor” prime in 2002. Going after their interests and musical strong suites, Michelle Williams returned to her gospel roots, Beyonce` was scheduled to follow Williams’ release with an R&B record and lastly, Kelly-pop with alternative influence. The schedule got rearranged, however, when Rowland’s collaboration with Nelly, “Dilemma,” became a huge hit and ultimately garnered 2 Grammy nominations and 1 win. In trying to keep up with the single’s heat, a rush job was done on Kelly’s solo debut “Simply Deep,” resulting in mediocre tracks that would fail to chart. Quality material wasn’t the problem for 2007’s “Ms. Kelly;” sassy, personal, smooth and catchy, it was possibly one of the best R&B albums of that year, but it was very poorly promoted. Convinced the material was to blame, Columbia Records released a deluxe edition and an EP entitled “Ms. Kelly: Diva Deluxe” with several new tracks, but it didn’t help. In my opinion, scanty promotion combined with the wrong single choices killed the album’s chances. Where was “Still in Love with My Ex”? It was relatable and contained juicy gossip (the song was reportedly about Rowland’s broken engagement to football player Roy Williams)! Where was the ridiculously sexy “The Show” featuring Tank or “Every Thought is You”?!
At that point, theories swirled. Maybe Kelly wasn’t talented enough. Maybe it was the record label. Maybe it was her manager, Mathew Knowles; maybe he doesn’t know how to manage anyone else’s career well but his daughter, Beyonce’s. By the end of 2009, 2 out of 3 of those theories were taken care of; she was no longer on Columbia Records and sought out new management. Kelly was finally going to have her moment in the sun, or so many had hoped. Rowland’s new home, Universal Motown, began releasing “tester singles” in 2010. Interviews early in the recording process suggested that the new album would feature dance music and Rowland was taken with the genre and wanted blend it with R&B cuts. Like other up-tempo tracks released by the singer, “When Love Takes Over” & “Commander” performed well in Europe and with techno boiling over in the U.S., this seemed like a promising direction. Then “Motivation” happened. The sheet-warmer single shot to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #17 on the Hot 100. The upcoming “Here I Am” was about to change from a dance record to an mostly urban sexapalooza and Rowland was going to sell the image for dear life- topless magazine covers, sultry interview details and all. Despite the hard sell, it didn’t seem like many bought it. The sudden image and material change came off like an obvious ploy to move units; only it didn’t. Subsequent singles from “Here I Am,” albeit somewhat under-promoted, didn’t perform well and the album flat-lined. Now, here we are preparing for her 4th album and it appears the record label wants to learn the hard way. Rowland tried to create “Motivation” magic again with Lil Wayne for “Ice,” but like Nelly’s attempt to make “Dilemma” happen again with “Gone,” the songs sounded too similar and it didn’t work. “Kisses Down Low” isn’t working. When are they going to get it through their thick skulls that Kelly, the sex toy, isn’t working?!
Above all else, the central issue in Kelly’s career is that label executives don’t know what to do with her and have failed to acknowledge their missteps in shaping her career. Additionally, they don’t believe in her. From my perspective, they don’t respect her presence, nor do they realize her level of talent or potential and the proof is in the pudding. Executives could put the same effort and energy into Kelly that they do chart-toppers with less talent, but they don’t because I think, inherently, they believe she isn’t marketable. They view her as just an unneeded cast-off from a group. Rowland could better stay ahead of these pitfalls if she was also a writer and/or producer, but she doesn’t have those gifts. She needs a team and a record label that’s going to help build a sound and image that’s more organic to who she is internally. Bring in top-notch songwriters and musicians. Give us heartfelt ballads (I wish she would’ve gotten Rihanna’s “Unfaithful”) and inspiring, energizing pop or dance music. Dance music fits Kelly’s voice like a glove. Her voice just soars on tracks like “Forever & a Day” & “When Love Takes Over.” I saw a clip of her performing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Kelly could benefit from doing songs like the ones Houston did early in her career) and Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” for tributes; those songs fit her voice extremely well. As it stands now, I think Kelly’s brand is being cheapened and it’s disenchanting.
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