When Talent -- Earnest "Bishop" Dixon, Marlon "Castor Troy" Hatcher, and Keith "Casino" Murrell -- left its native Kansas City, Mo., to work with R. Kelly in Chicago, the group expected to stay only

When Talent -- Earnest "Bishop" Dixon, Marlon "Castor Troy" Hatcher, and Keith "Casino" Murrell -- left its native Kansas City, Mo., to work with R. Kelly in Chicago, the group expected to stay only two weeks. That two weeks became two years.

The end result of the trio's two-year Windy City sojourn is its Rockland/Interscope debut album "Bull's Eye," slated for release March 13. The majority of the material was written and produced by Kelly, who first became interested in the group after they sang a rendition of Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road" on the pager of an A&R staffer at Kelly's Rockland Records.

"It took a while to record because Rob [Kelly] was working on a number of other things," explains Hatcher. "It was a lengthy process, but we never rushed it. For example, there's a ballad on the album, 'Turn To Lies,' that took a week to record because Rob made sure we got it right."

Though the Talent members grew up blocks from each other in Kansas City and were raised in the same neighborhood church (Hatcher's grandfather is a minister; Dixon's father is an evangelist), Hatcher says it took their enforced stay in Chicago to really make them gel as a group. And it also allowed Kelly the chance to get to know Talent.

"He's like our brother," says Hatcher. "He knows the way we think, how we walk. He might even start to use our lingo and talk more country like we do just to get our vibe when he writes."

"It was like going to college. Everything was a lesson with Rob," adds Dixon. "We learned you have to be inspired. A lot of people worry about quantity, but it's quality that counts. Rob taught us that it's OK to cry. He got us more in touch with our emotions."

The first single from "Bull's Eye" is the soulful, mid-tempo "Celebrity," which was sent to U.S. radio stations in September and made commercially available Oct. 17. The song deals with a girlfriend's obsession with dating famous guys.

"I guess it's something all guys can relate to to a certain extent," says Dixon. "It's about a girl who wants to date someone based on how much money he's got."

The album features a generous helping of melodic ballads, including the lush, fluid standout "I Don't Want," which takes its cue from Phyllis Hyman's "Living All Alone." But a mix of upbeat, hip-hop-inflected songs such as "Breakin' Up," "Everywhere I Go," and the Trackmasters/Kelly collaboration "All Up In His Ride" add an edge to an otherwise silky-smooth debut. The album's biggest surprise is an a cappella reading of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," the theme from the film "Titanic."

"That was also Rob's idea," says Hatcher. "Before we sang it, Rob asked us to watch the movie and really feel it. He told us that if we felt like crying to go ahead and cry."

At the time the trio signed with Kelly, none of them were established songwriters. Since then, Dixon has written Profyle's No. 1 R&B Motown single "Liar" and Joe's forthcoming single "Stutter," both produced by Teddy Riley.

"The best songwriters are those who have been through something," says Dixon as he recalls the inspiration behind "Liar." "My girl and I had made plans to be together. Then I found out she did something she shouldn't have. The same girl inspired 'Stutter.' But I can't be that mad, because she's put a lot of songs in my head."

"That Midwest, deep-soul appeal in Talent's music is something that's sorely missing in R&B today," says Interscope product manager Meda Leacock. "Women will really be able to relate to the honesty and integrity in their lyrics... And guys will be able to say, 'Wow, I went through that same thing.' "

Having completed an October promo tour, Talent is scheduled to undertake another junket in January coupled with fellow Interscope acts City High, Secret Weapon, and ParlÉ. TV appearances on BET, UPN, and local cable stations are planned. In addition, the group is preparing to join an upcoming Kelly tour set tentatively for March.

"Vocally," adds Leacock, "Talent really delivers R. Kelly's songs. I think a lot of people will be surprised to know Kelly is heavily involved because it's so different from his own material. It's a winning combination.