With 18 weeks on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, including seven nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1, Kelly Rowland's breathless pillow-talk ballad "Motivation," featuring Lil Wayne, is undeniably one of the summer's best songs and biggest hits. Beyond the track's pervasive sensuality and deceptively simple melody, though, half the impact is hearing a new side to the former Destiny's Child singer, who'd released woman-power anthems in the past but had never emerged quite so strong, so visceral and so present.
Her breakout performance at June's BET Awards -- a steamy set with Trey Songz while wearing a much-commented-upon body suit and wide-brimmed hat -- reflected a new confidence and mystery. That performance showcased a longtime performer who'd finally settled into herself-a quality evident on her third album, "Here I Am," arriving July 22 on Universal Motown.
"I'm 30 now," Rowland says, "and there's something with being on your own and having your business together and having a good team -- all of that is so incredibly rewarding. For me, [this album] was just about growth. I remember watching 'Motivation' grow [at radio], and being like, 'Oh, my God, that station has never played a Kelly Rowland record.' It's incredibly humbling, because I started in this game when I was 15, 16 years old, and here I am 30 and I'm still here."
Video: Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne, "Motivation"
Despite the song's promise of longevity, a year-and-a-half ago Rowland was at a crossroads, her next step unclear. Though she was experiencing success on TV with her stint on Bravo's sartorial series "The Fashion Show," she was label-less, having been dropped by Columbia Records in 2009 for poor album sales following 2007's "Ms. Kelly." (The project has sold 222,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) She had also decided to sever ties with Mathew Knowles, who'd managed her career since her Destiny's Child days, a decision that stemmed from, she says, "just a feeling in my gut about changing. It was a simple conversation I had with him, and he was very understanding and it moved from there. I am just grateful that I'm at the age where I'm making decisions for myself. And that I'm not afraid, above everything, because that was not easy at all. At all."
Undeterred, Rowland began recording the songs that would eventually make up Here I Am. She explored different styles-including the dance music that helped her score the No. 1 Dance Club Songs hit of 2009, "When Love Takes Over," with French DJ/producer David Guetta -- and cut tracks with more traditional urban producers like Tricky Stewart, Ester Dean, Rico Love (who produced "Motivation") and longtime collaborator Rodney "Darkchild" Jenkins. "I recorded the same whether it was with or without a label, to be honest," she says. "For me, it was just about the creativity."
Serendipitously, it was the strobe light club thump of dance music that eventually landed her a deal with Universal Motown, when the label's then-president Sylvia Rhone visited her in a Miami studio after hearing "Commander," Rowland's second single with Guetta. "She came in with the finished product of 'Commander,' and she was playfully like, 'What is this?'" Rowland recalls. "I was like, 'That's dance music.' She was like, 'That's hot!' Next thing we know we're meeting in New York and working on the record."
Rowland hasn't abandoned her signature styles -- Here I Am is still very much about hip-hop and pop-informed R&B, and the Hit-Boy-produced second single, "Lay It on Me," is an infectious, uptempo love-maker, featuring rapper Big Sean. But the album does reflect Rowland's growing appeal in the global market, which should receive a bump from her forthcoming role as a judge on Simon Cowell's British music competition show "The X Factor" and the internationally released trance and dubstep-influenced single "Down for Whatever," produced by RedOne.
"We're going to attack Kelly from a global standpoint because her presence is forever expanding," says co-manager Marcus Grant, of Collective Music Group, which took Rowland on as a client shortly after hearing "Motivation." "With her track record over the last few years, she has a built-in audience out there. Certain records are instant like 'Motivation,' but two is always better than one." Or, as Rowland's other manager Tim Weatherspoon, who started working with Rowland shortly after she severed ties with Knowles, puts it, "Hit records don't alter plans, [they] only enhance the strategy."
Rowland will appear on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on July 29, and she's hoping to play a smattering of domestic dates this summer. International tour plans are postponed until the top of 2012, after the upcoming season of "X Factor" has concluded.
Meanwhile, Rowland attributes her heretofore unseen solo success as much to those around her as to her own talents. "This came from having a good support system behind me," she says. "Everything has just panned out really well, and that's a blessing, period."