Keyshia Cole
The Way It Is
A&M; Records
2005
B



keyshia Keyshia Keyshia! I saw you on Live at the Apollo and you moved me. You sang “I Could Have Cheated” and totally captured everything I love about your album in one intoxicating EVENT: the defiant survivalism, the uncertainty in your voice, and the underlying tragedy. Then, visibly shaking on stage, you came into your own, voice full-bodied, confident, certain. There I was, sitting in front of the television with a fan blowing hot city air all over my face, sweating in an undershirt and shorts lying limp on the couch, eyes wide, and ears open: it was a jaw dropping performance. You have something here, Keyshia, a little Mary J. Blige Jr., that tense, almost tortured persona, sad tales of loss wrapped in sexual songwriting. An entirely unpretentious, passionate approach, just like Mary J. circa What’s the 411?! This album is what R&B; needs when demure, polite girls “Cater 2 U” and the defiant ones are all “don’t you wish your girl was hot like me?” Real confidence, real self-doubt.

So you don’t have that ‘R&B; plus hip-hop!’ progressive pedigree that What’s the 411? inspired. And no, there’s no Timbaland or Darkchild or Neptunes making space-age beats behind you, so a lot of the cats reading this site are gonna click the STYLUS link in the upper left right NOW, move on to the next review. Oh no, it’s not neo-soul either, its just soul, soul samples and rap music drums, the same thing they’ve been doing for a decade plus.

But to me, Whats the 411? doesn’t sound radical either (even though I’ve been told it is), because I’ve grown up with it. All I’ve been left with are the songs: a gang of great songs that make my heart flutter with a knowing, gnawing discomfort, the awareness that, strip it down, this is all about Keyshia, and by extension, all about me. Her soul, my soul, myopic generalities of ‘authentic expression’ get outta here: I feel it because I know what she’s saying. Listening to her sing is like those private conversations with friends about relationships that you can see are doomed but you listen quietly and hope for the best. Or it’s pouring your heart out to the one person who understands and you know that you’re grasping at straws trying to save the relationship as it sinks around you. “I Should Have Cheated.” Just say those words—they sound so flippant. Keyshia knows better. It’s a cry, a desperate, melancholy, last-ditch attempt to hurt when the proverbial chips are down and you know there’s nothing else you can do or say—and then at the end she says “I love you…” and it’s multi-tracked so it’s easy to miss but you know that’s how she really feels.

These songs stay stuck with you like a lump in your throat. Notch the tempo up though and she’s still pretty sad, yet tough, with tattooed arms (a heart with a stake through the middle!) and hoop earrings, a wary glance towards the camera on the album art. She’s no pushover, man. “Guess what nigga? I’m leavin’ you.” But you know, like everything, there’s an uncertainty there, she’s questioning herself in those ad-libs, when her voice scrapes the top of the register and she reminds me again of Mary J. On “Situations” (with 2Pac fan #3,486 Chink Santana dropping an unneeded guest verse) she twists the same kind of desperate bitterness with a dash of urgency— “I should be your girl.” The musical missteps—there are a couple—are redeemed by Keyshia’s total commitment to the performance, her flawed, utter belief that if she sings that right note, maybe he’ll come back. Or that he’ll go away forever. Or, better yet, things will be like they were before.

OK: so this makes the album sound hella devastating, and that would be overstating it a bit. Those are just the most effective moments, you know? On What’s the 411 Mary J. redeemed the pain with “Real Love,” the second full song on the album, to show us there was a reason we get tangled in these relationships in the first place. For Keyshia it’s a song called “Never,” but she waits until the end to unload it, an emotionally draining build-up to the finale’s sweet dancefloor release. And, at first, I didn’t believe that this is really how she feels; this was how things used to be, perhaps. A minute in and I was convinced. It really is REAL LOVE, unleashed in that four-to-the-floor dance pulse. It’s Eve that delivers the key lyric; she knows why we all go through it, the pain and struggle and drama. But I don’t think about it universally; that song is just about me, listening to Keyshia on a sweaty summer night while the window fan, tilted against the screen, whirls in continuous circles—because whatever happens, like Eve says, I “melt inside when you look in my eyes.”


Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2005-08-11
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