COVER STORY: Keri Hilson
KERI HILSON WANTS TO BE GREAT—BIG VENUE, ENDORSEMENT DEALS, RECORD-BREAKING- BILLBOARD-STATUS SUCCESSFUL. SHE WANTS TO ACCOMPLISH THIS ON HER OWN MERIT. BUT WILL THE POWERFUL MEN IN HER LIFE CLEAR THE PATH?
Story: Siobhan O’Connor II Photography: GL Wood
KERI HILSON IS SIPPING a bright yellow frozen margarita and padding around in puddles of booze. Dressed in up-to-there Levi’s shorts and studded boots, this is Daytime Keri—casual, relaxed, go-anywhere Keri, who dances from the waist up with a straw in her mouth, and flashes her enormous smile for the cameras, of which there are several.
It’s a little after 5 p.m. on a Saturday, and the Morehouse/Spelman Homecoming is in full swing. “I don’t want to live like a prisoner,” she says, tweeting her whereabouts from her BlackBerry. Hilson is famous now, especially in her hometown of Atlanta, and she has almost a million followers on Twitter, which means it’s a matter of minutes before people start sticking their phones in her face to snap pictures. Being famous may mean she gets her makeup done before she goes to a barbecue, and that a stylist will help her decide between the black cutoffs and the blues, but, as she points out, she’s here without an entourage and security. “I mean, can you imagine Beyoncé doing this?”
Inside the tent occupied by Zone 4, the Polow Da Don-Interscope imprint to which she’s signed, her poppy new single, “Pretty Girl Rock,” blasts from the giant speakers on repeat. It’s a drink-spilly kind of crowd, fun, festive and a little bit messy. Hilson is cocking back her shoulder with a little snap, and she even takes the mic for a while. But as everyone around her is letting loose, she remains poised and a touch distant.
Whether by design or by accident, Hilson, who has written songs for the biggest names in rap, pop and R&B, has managed to reveal remarkably little of herself. Her interview answers are unspecific, and so are her songs. Her first album, In a Perfect World. . .was well reviewed but unmemorable, flooded with artists and big-name producers who stole the show. Its biggest song was “Knock You Down,” a catchy, impersonal pop record about falling in love that featured Ne-Yo and Kanye West. She was eclipsed by Lil Wayne on her second biggest hit, “Turnin Me On,” and its feisty remix got her in hot water for those kind-of-maybe Ciara and Beyoncé disses—which she says she didn’t mean and were not her idea. In other words, nothing she is known for so far particularly screams Keri Hilson.
That may be because she’s spent most of her career as someone else’s pet project. After high school, Hilson worked with producer Anthony Dent, who put her on as a backup singer and a songwriter when her first deal, with Elektra Records, didn’t pan out. Later, Polow Da Don scooped her up and introduced her to Timbaland. Now, Jimmy Iovine is in the mix. And over the years, everyone has had different ideas about what—and who—Hilson should be.
But Hilson has her own ideas about that, too.
“There have been situations where the people you’re around have one vision for you, and it’s like trying on a jacket that doesn’t fit,” she says. “Some- one says, ‘Go out there in this jacket.’ And you’re like, ‘But… it doesn’t fit! Nor is it my style.’ And that’s hard, because these are people who are investing in you, spending their time and their money, but they have a different direction. But you want to—I mean you have to—please them. You have to try it, and hope you are able to turn it around before you’re known as some- thing you aren’t.”
Now, as she readies No Boys Allowed, her second full-length solo album, she faces the challenge of showing the world who she is, and differentiating herself as a lasting R&B act. She’s proven herself as a singer and a songwriter, and she’s got movie-star good looks. But when she promises that this album is more “her” than the last one, it’s hard to know what that means exactly. There’s more to her than a face and voice, certainly. The question is whether Hilson can stomach showing it. Or, perhaps, if the people who have invested in her will let her.
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