Nearly a decade after Destiny's Child last studio album, Kelly Rowland's fourth solo LP confronts fear, sex, self-doubt and lingering jealousy of Beyonce's success.
"Talk a Good Game" is exactly what Kelly Rowland does on her new album of that name. Rowland's second set for Republic Records and fourth album overall, due June 18, finds the former Destiny's Child member fully coming into her own as a solo artist with a renewed focus on R&B and her most forthcoming, hard-hitting tracks to date.
"I decided to speak on what I was doing in my life," Rowland says during an April visit to New York, where she played a live-streamed concert for Courvoisier, her first live gig in support of the album. "There's so much talking and people are going to be like, 'Is she really talking about this on the album?'"
The set has already been preceded by "Kisses Down Low," the playfully naughty lead single produced by Mike WiLL Made It that has reached the top 10 on Billboard's R&B Songs chart and currently resides at No. 96 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Talk a Good Game" will also get an extra promotional boost in the fall, when Rowland will join the judges' chairs on "The X Factor." The new gig will make the United States a priority market once again for Rowland, having found more success overseas in recent years as a judge on the U.K. "X Factor" as well as Australia's "Everybody Dance Now" in 2012. She even leveraged her previous "X Factor" stint to score a U.K. hit single with the dance-leaning "Down for Whatever" in 2011. "I am excited to be teaming up with Simon [Cowell] and 'X Factor' again," Rowland says. "I am honored to have this special opportunity to work with new talent."
But at the center of the project is "Dirty Laundry," a collaboration with The-Dream that Rowland premiered May 15 on her SoundCloud page. The candid track finds Rowland laying herself bare with frank and often poignant commentary that begins during a rough period shortly after the release of her solo debut, "Simply Deep," in 2002.
The song unfolds in chapters, with Rowland confronting her resentment over Beyoncé's post-Destiny's Child success in the first verse. "When my sister was onstage/ Killing it like a motherfucker/I was in a rage/ Feeling it like a motherfucker," she sings, later adding, "Post-Survivor, she on fire/ Who wanna hear my bullshit?"
The second and third verses take a darker turn, with Rowland singing about an ex who was "hitting the window like it was me/And still it shattered. He pulled me out and said, 'Don't nobody love you but me/ Not your mama/ Not your daddy/ And especially not Bey.'"
Recording the song was so emotional for Rowland, it took her several takes to lay down her vocals without crying. At a recent listening for her label, she had to leave the room before the track was played, and at a performance in Washington, D.C., on May 26, she broke down in the middle of performing it, crying and putting her head in her hands.
"It took me days to record," Rowland says. "I had to get past being so upset and actually sing the song, not sob through it. I always hope that my music can inspire someone, the same way other artists inspire me. Dream said, 'I want to write you a record so that people will know exactly who you are, underneath it all.'"
The-Dream adds that he had to push Rowland to go outside her comfort zone, compiling highlights from different personal stories she shared as he assembled the lyrics for "Dirty Laundry." "What unfolds on TV or on the Internet, it's never really that. You think it is but it's just not," he says. "When you have a stage like Kelly has, you should talk about that part of your life. I think Kelly's way deeper than that."
The song should help Rowland further establish her own identity as a solo artist, nearly 12 years after the fact. Though she's had success as a guest vocalist (most notably Nelly's "Dilemma," which topped the Hot 100 for 10 weeks in 2002) and in dance (David Guetta collaborations "When Love Takes Over" and "Commander," each of which topped the Dance Club Songs chart), Rowland had only a handful of hits in her core genre of R&B until 2011's "Motivation." The Lil Wayne collaboration topped the R&B Songs tally, reached No. 17 on the Hot 100 and achieved platinum sales-making it her most successful single as a lead artist to date, surpassing 2002's "Stole," which reached No. 27 on the Hot 100.
Rowland's A&R reps at Republic wanted to capitalize on the success of "Motivation" and shaped the rest of "Talk a Good Game" with that track's ultra-modern, pillow-talk vibe in mind. Though the album features 12 tracks, more than 70 were recorded for the project with a variety of producers-including Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, whose sessions were ultimately scrapped. Instead, producers of the moment like Boi-1da and T-Minus make contributions, and Lil Wayne ("Ice") and Pharrell ("Feet to the Fire") are among the other featured vocalists.
"This is the first album she's made where she's really put everything into it as an artist and a songwriter, even when it meant working with people she wasn't initially thinking about," Republic senior VP of A&R Wendy Goldstein says. "We wanted to support and allow her to make the record we all knew was really in her and give her the freedom and access to do that."
Rowland gets explicit on another collaboration with The-Dream, the futuristic sex jam "Skywalker," where she wishes she could clone her boyfriend's, uh, light saber for "the times that you're not around." A pair of tracks produced by Harmony Samuels, "Gone" (featuring Wiz Khalifa) and "Down on Love," are melodic goodbyes to an ex, with interpolations of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" and the Whispers' "Rock Steady," respectively, woven in. Later, on "You Changed," another Samuels-produced track, Rowland reunites with Beyoncé and Michelle Williams to gang up on a former lover ("You should get yourself admitted don't delay/ You let the ball drop/ Too bad for you... My whole life's been amazing," Beyoncé sings on the second verse.)
Rowland also pops up on The-Dream's new album, "IV Play," on a track called "Where Have You Been," the result of a multiple-project collaboration that has also led to a month-long tour between the two artists that began May 24. "We're both excited, and are on the phone every other day with new ideas," Rowland says in late April of the 10-city tour, dubbed Lights Out. "It's going to be a fun, intimate and sexy show. I'm in a place where I am really enjoying performing and the tour can't come fast enough."
That will include making a showcase moment out of "Dirty Laundry," which Rowland envisions as "me, a light and a mic." That Rowland even got to a place where she could perform the song is enough of an accomplishment for The-Dream. "The first time we did it I was like, 'I know this isn't a song you sing, but I'd rather you feel this than to hit the notes you need to hit.' I had no idea how talented she was at vocals, and she just drove it out there," he says. "Forget the rest of it, about the business and all that. Just knowing she feels and felt was great enough for me, even if nobody heard the record. It's an Earth-stopper. It's going to take a couple weeks for people to let it soak in."