A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: YahZarah, Finger Eleven and Matchbook Romance.

BACK-UP NO MORE: R&B singer YahZarah was settling in for dorm life at North Carolina Central University when she was drafted by neo-soul staple Erykah Badu. The superstar picked the young student to be part of her back-up crew, and the two spent six years together as touring partners.

Yet the Washington, D.C. -native had intentions of stepping out on her own, and recorded an album in 2001, "Hear Me," on Keo Music. The initial run of "Hear Me," featuring YahZarah's old-school soul, earned her comparisons to Minnie Ripperton and eventually sold out. The acclaim lauded on her debut, coupled with her association with Badu, landed YahZarah a deal with Three Keys Music. The label released her second effort, "Blackstar," earlier this month.

"My entire goal is not to remind you of someone you could buy today but of someone you could listen to yesterday," YahZarah tells Billboard. "I wanted to bring... a sound that's reminiscent of what we grew up with but functions with something that is brand new. If Jimi Hendrix and Parliament decided to make a baby with Sly Stone, I'd be her."

YahZarahIndeed, the 15-tracks of "Blackstar" feature mellow, funk-inspired soul, ranging from the worldly rhythms of "Friday" to the gospel-leaning cocktail party grooves of "Bury It." It's an organic, easily accessible release, which puts YahZarah's distinctive, wide-ranging soprano at its center.

"Blackstar" debuted last week at No. 37 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart. The album has already spent two weeks on the magazine's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums tally, where East Coast sales fueled by airplay caused an 87-45 rise last week. While the artist was featured heavily on Badu's "Mama's Gun" (Motown), this is the first time YahZarah has appeared on any of Billboard's charts as a solo artist.

Yet according to YahZarah, her career as a musician was pre-determined from day one. "I've always had a real understanding of what my path was at a very young age," she says. "All I've ever wanted to do was be involved in the arts. I know the situation that I'm in is very divine, because I was born to a woman who couldn't have children. I'm an only child. When my mother found out she was pregnant, she had hands laid on her and it was prophesied that I would be a muse- that I would make music, touch people, and be a blessing to mankind."

YahZarah will tour the East Coast in December.


Finger ElevenFINGERED FOR SUCCESS: Finger Eleven does not want to be called a nu-metal band. Yes, the Canadian group features aggressive, grinding guitars, but on its fourth release for Wind-Up Records, Finger Eleven opens up its sound to bring in new wave and acoustic influences.

The band also states its strict opposition to the term on its official Web site: "We're not nu-metal. Simple as that ... We don't believe in screams without melody, and we're not that depressed." In fact, the band's self-titled new album opens with a cut entitled "Good Times," a stop-and-go guitar anthem that the band says owes a heavy debt to beer, or so the band says on the site.

Finger Eleven is on the verge of following Wind-Up labelmates Evanescence and Creed to mainstream success. The Canadian-based group has already toured with Ozzy Osbourne and had a cut featured on the label's soundtrack to "Daredevil," which was instrumental in launching Evanescence's career.

Additionally, Finger Eleven is receiving a helping hand from some of its label pals. The hard rock five-piece was a support act on the Nintendo Fusion Tour, which wrapped in September and featured Evanescence as a headliner. Finger Eleven will continue touring with Evanescence overseas, and will be a part of the band's shows with Godhead and Seether this winter in North America.

Finger Eleven's "One Thing" has already spent three weeks on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, hanging in at No. 40 last week. Additionally, the band's self-titled album was the act's first to reach The Billboard 200, where it bowed at No. 157 in July. The group's debut, "Greyest Skies of Blue," had to settle for a peak of No. 19 on the magazine's Heatseekers chart in 2000.

The group's new album is being streamed on its official Web site.


Matchbook RomanceNEW ROMANCE: The success of melodic punk acts such as Thursday, Taking Back Sunday and Thrice continues to have a trickle-down effect. The latest beneficiary is Epitaph newcomer Matchbook Romance, which released its debut, "Stories and Alibis," earlier this month.

The Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based act, which uses a dual vocal approach a la Taking Back Sunday, knew how to use the Web to its fullest advantage. While Matchbook Romance was coming together in the late 1990s, then known as the Getaway, the group used the Internet for some heavy self-promotion. A few years and a slight buzz on the Web later, Epitaph/Bad Religion founder Brett Gurewitz happened across one of the band's MP3's, liked what he heard and flew the group out to Los Angeles.

Once out West, the group changed its name to Matchbook Romance, recorded the "West for Wishing" EP and found itself a spot on this year's Warped Tour. A more melodic full-length was recorded with Joe Barresi (Pennywise, the Jesus Lizard), continuing the group's relatively quick rise in the world of punkdom.

"Stories and Alibis" debuted two weeks ago on Billboard's Heatseekers chart at No. 30. It also appeared on the magazine's Top Independent Albums tally at No. 31, where it fell to No. 40 last week.

Matchbook Romance will be touring the U.S. through early December.