Keyshia Cole knows what she wants -- and what the dynamic diva wants right now is a turkey sandwich on wheat bread with nothing on it but mayo and mustard. But the waitstaff at the restaurant adjacent to the Affinia Dumont Hotel in Manhattan can't quite seem to get that right. The sandwich first comes out with lettuce and tomatoes. But Cole is allergic to tomatoes -- "My face gets puffy," she says -- so she sends it back. No one can argue that Cole isn't forthright about what she wants -- and, beyond the sandwich, she's hungry for success.
On Dec. 16 Imani/Geffen/Interscope will release her third album, "A Different Me," which will drop in the wake of the 360 deal Cole signed with Interscope that includes a movie based on her life.
But right now, Cole needs to eat. Several minutes later, the sandwich comes back piled with bean sprouts and dripping with seeds -- remnants of the tomatoes that were removed from its earlier incarnation. Back again.
The third time the sandwich comes out, Cole repeats her order, emphasizing she would like regular mustard. Instead, the waitress returns with a small paper cup filled with spicy mustard.
Cole sends her assistant across the street to buy a small bottle of French's yellow mustard. "Dijon mustard is New York-style," she says. "It's the one thing I hate when I come out here."
Cole's single-minded scrappiness has served her well -- she used it to hammer out a music career forged on the gritty streets of Oakland, Calif., and in three years, her street-honed soul has sparked two consecutive platinum albums, eight top 10 singles on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (including three No. 1s) and a top-rated reality show on BET.
All these professional achievements belie the pain-filled personal saga that first introduced Cole to the spotlight. Many of the singer/songwriter's biggest hits -- "I Should Have Cheated," "Love," "Let It Go," "I Remember" and "Heaven Sent" -- are songs that simultaneously evoke vulnerability and a fierce, don't-mess-with-me confidence. "When I met her, she had a real street attitude," says manager Manny Halley. "She didn't sugarcoat; she didn't hide anything. When I heard her sing, I could hear the pain and tear in her voice."
After her first two wrenching albums, 2005's "The Way It Is" and 2007's "Just Like You," Cole's forthcoming "A Different Me" finds the singer/songwriter having more fun. "The first two albums were more . . . painful," she says. "It's a different me this time: a young woman who's still growing and finding myself, exploring life through different routes musically and in other areas. I wrote more about other people's situations than my own. I'm moving forward."
"A Different Me" features Cole collaborating with a combination of marquee names and newcomers, including Polow Da Don, the Runners, Neffu, Kwame, Orthodox & Ransom and the Trackmasters. On her previous albums, Cole worked with such songwriter/producers as Greg Curtis, Missy Elliott, Scott Storch, Bryan-Michael Cox, Rodney Jerkins and Sean Garrett.
"When I hear something, I hear it -- it doesn't take me three, four, five times to hear a song and say, 'OK, let's write,' " Cole says about her songwriting process. "If I don't write to it right off the bat, it's not working."
She's reflective and coy on the melodic lead single "Playa Cardz Right" featuring a posthumous Tupac Shakur; the track originally appeared on his 2006 album "Pac's Life," but dressed up with a new verse and arrangement by Cole and producers Fair, Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias.
A girl-talk intro colorfully sets up Cole's duet with real-life friend Monica on "Trust," while Polow Da Don taps into Cole's upbeat side on the pulsating "Make Me Over." Cole further hones her ballad skills on the track "You Complete Me" and flashes a sultry side on a cover of R. Kelly's 1992 No. 1 R&B hit, "Honey Love."
While Cole's rise may seem fast to the public, the 27-year-old singer first began dabbling in music when she was 12, recording with MC Hammer and being mentored by Shakur. Born to a drug-addicted mother and adopted by a family friend when she was 2, Cole is the younger sister of Oakland-based rapper Nutt-So.
"Other people recognized my talent before I did," Cole says. "There were times when Hammer, Pac or other people from around my way would say, 'That little girl can sing. Sing something.' And I'd say, 'You got $5?' "
Cole says the idea of seriously pursuing a music career didn't kick in until Shakur died -- "he saw it in me," she says. That sorrow -- and heartbreak brought on by a cheating boyfriend -- pushed Cole to Los Angeles and a renewed focus on her career.
That hard work eventually led to an audition for her A&R rep Ron Fair, who signed her initially to a contract with A&M/Interscope in 2004. As Cole recalls, "That was the easiest part: Ron saying I was signed after hearing one verse of 'Love' and the chorus."
In between finishing "Me," Cole reteamed with director Benny Boom to shoot the video for "Playa Cardz Right"; performed at the music industry's annual City of Hope benefit Oct. 15 in Los Angeles, singing Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky"; flew to Atlanta a couple of days later to serve as an award presenter at BET's Hip-Hop Awards; and squeezed in three parties between L.A. and Atlanta during that period to celebrate her 27th birthday.
She and Halley also found time to negotiate a 360 deal with Interscope. One of the offshoots of the new deal is a movie the trio is developing based on Cole's life. Halley, Cole's team hired a screenwriter to go on the road with her next year and begin developing the script.
Sitting in the restaurant, Cole is the epitome of style with her black Chanel ankle boots and wavy, short-cropped 'do. Peeking out from under the sleeves and above the collar are various tattoos, including one on her neck with the words "Have Faith" emblazoned just below a red heart -- evidence of the scrappy young girl who's starting to live her dream.
"I haven't reached my goal yet," says Cole, who says that down the road she wants to live in a log cabin and own horses, operate a veterinary hospital and pet store -- "I'm a dog person," she adds -- plus a coffee shop on the side. "I want that real bad. I can just see the couches and the fireplace going.
"But to get there," she continues, "I have to first accomplish my musical goals. To quote Tupac, 'I got my money right, I got my mind right, and now I want war.' "