LOS ANGELES — Kelly Rowland opens her third solo effort, "Here I Am," with the roaring "I'm Dat Chick," on which the diva boasts a newfound confidence. And for a solo career that has seen as much criticism as triumph, the assertion couldn't have come at a better time: She's out to prove something.
"Yeah, I be the one that they love to mention / I tell 'em keep on talking, cause I love the attention," she sings on the Tricky Stewart-produced track.
It's paid off for Rowland. "Here I Am" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 after logging 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan — her highest out-of-the-gate charting outside of the multiplatinum clutch of Destiny's Child.
Though the 30-year-old appears to have found her footing now, a year ago she was stuck on a path of stalled singles and delays for the album, her first in four years, and with both a new label and management.
"I wanted this record to be a statement for me. Every song was showing every side of me from a personal side on 'Heaven on Earth' to a more sensual side with songs like 'Motivation,'" Rowland said during a recent phone conversation. "For me, it was more so about making that statement of 'Here I Am.'"
Originally slated for release nearly a year ago, the disc was supposed to trail the lightning success of her collaboration with French dance producer David Guetta on "When Love Takes Over." Rowland enlisted Guetta for the album's first single, "Commander," which hit the top spot on the dance charts. But subsequent singles, ranging from Euro-pop ("Forever and a Day" and "Rose Colored Glasses") to R&B ("Grown Woman"), quickly cooled and were subsequently ditched from the final disc.
"(I was) just feeling out the record. It was feeling incomplete," Rowland says of the stalls. "And for a second, so many people were trying to put me in a box. And nobody better put me in a box when it came to this record. When it comes to dance music or when it comes to urban music, I can do it all. People are able to try things out. If it works, wonderful. If it doesn't, keep it moving."
The project got a much needed boost when she teamed with Lil Wayne on the sexy summer jam "Motivation." The record showcased a more sensual side of the singer, who demanded her lover "last more rounds." It peaked at No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, where it remained for seven nonconsecutive weeks, making it her highest performing single as a solo artist. Her steamy performance at the BET Awards in June showed she was ready to take center stage.
"I played around with different things. When I went into the studio with Rico (Love), if it worked ... I kept it. When it came to playing around with RedOne (he produced 'Down for Whatever'), and I absolutely fell in love with it, then I kept it," she said. "The foundation is R&B. You mention a song like 'Commander,' and that top line is still urban. It still has that undertone of urban, and I've never left that. I've always kept my soul. It just happened to be to a different tempo sometimes, and there is nothing wrong with that."
"Motivation," unlike "Commander," set the real tone for the disc, leaning as it does on urban backbeats and R&B melodies with the aid of Stewart, Rico Love, Ester Dean, Jim Jonsin and Rodney Jerkins and guest spots from buzzy rappers Lil Play and Big Sean, the latter of whom appears on her new single "Lay It on Me."
"She felt she wanted to capitalize on the success of 'When Love Takes Over,' which was very smart. So we did 'Commander.' For whatever reason, the other records she released in the States didn't connect," said Love, who produced and co-wrote the bulk of the disc. "'Motivation,' it was something different for Kelly. It was a subject matter that she wasn't used to. And it didn't hurt that Lil Wayne jumped on it right after he got out (of jail)."
Looking at her back catalog, it's been easy for critics to dismiss Rowland as a confused ingenue. Her debut, 2002's "Simply Deep," explored the rock-dance waters, while its follow-up, 2007's "Ms. Kelly," was strictly urban. After the disc's commercial disappointment, Rowland was dropped from longtime label Columbia Records and ended her professional relationship with manager Mathew Knowles, who managed all three members of Destiny's Child as solo artists, including daughter Beyonce. Rowland is now signed to Universal Motown Republic.
Since she went solo, she hasn't been able to escape comparisons to her former bandmate and close friend; many critics have found ways to compare the two, adding only more fuel to online rumors of tension between the women (Beyonce was the last to dismiss Knowles).
Rowland says there isn't any tension. All three gathered to celebrate the release of Rowland's album, and she just filmed a cameo in the video for Beyonce's new single, "Party."
"People want to say whatever they want to say. We all have our different reasons for making decisions and advancing forth in different situations," she said. "We're just happy as women, and for (myself), Bey and Michelle, I just want us to be happy. And I'm very proud of us as businesswomen in putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to grind it out."
Rowland is currently prepping a joint tour with Chris Brown, and the duo could announce dates as early as this week, she said. She was also handpicked by Simon Cowell to join "The X Factor" in England. She is also reportedly considering an alternate version of "Here I Am" to be released in Europe in November that would feature a heavy dose of dance tracks.
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