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Who Exactly is Keri Hilson?

23 November 2010 27 views No Comment

BY: Del F. Cowie

So who exactly is Keri Hilson? She’s been the seductress in R&B superstar Usher’s “Love in This Club” video, the ethereal voice of empathy on producer Timbaland’s hit “The Way I Are” and the songwriter behind pop star Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” — and that flexibility just mirrors her chameleonic visual presence since she emerged into the spotlight.

Speaking to her in person, it becomes apparent every step is viewed as a logical progression in what, contrary to how it may appear, has been a lengthy career in the music industry. In the midst of a media blitz at a downtown hotel, hours before she’s due to take the stage at Air Canada Centre as part of Lil Wayne’s I Am Music tour, 26-year-old Hilson is clearly focused on shifting her reputation from helping to craft hit songs for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Omarion and the Pussycat Dolls to doing the same thing for herself.

“Performing was definitely there before songwriting,” says Hilson. “Songwriting was like my Plan B and I really took it up because I knew I was good at it and I could make some money at it while I was a starving artist. So I never would have guessed it would have taken off as fast or as far as it did, but I’m thankful that it did.”

Hilson honed her songwriting chops as a teenager in Atlanta during a period where she was a singer in two failed female R&B groups, concocting her own approach to songs she heard on the radio. “I wrote to other people’s songs while they were singing and that was fun to me,” says Hilson. “I could completely not hear them and write my own thing.” For inspiration, Hilson often drew on her immediate environment. “The black women in Atlanta are some of the most beautiful black women in the world,” says Hilson. “We’re very conscious of upkeep and all that stuff. No diss to other cities, but Atlanta is full of successful black women that take pride in the way that they look. So the [hair] salon, the nail salon and places like that are where young women like me grow up — I would hear conversations and learn and be put up on game…. I know that I want to be able to speak to women the way those conversations happened in the time that I was growing up and also in the albums that I listen to.”

Hilson also found inspiration from then-Atlanta resident songwriter and producer Babyface. “These are songs that I’ll have at my wedding — songs that I’ll have people play at my wedding, you can believe that,” says Hilson laughing. “Not that I’m getting married, I’m just saying, eventually. I love him and I got to meet him and that was a huge deal for me.”

Before she got to meet her idol though, Hilson helped to form the songwriting collective The Clutch to bring more attention to the work of R&B songwriters. Eventually, she met producer Polow Da Don, now known for his work with A-list R&B artists, which proved to be a catalyst for her career. Having noticed her work, Polow notified Timbaland of her talent and the superstar producer immediately recruited her.

Now, after countless featured vocalist turns, including on Kardinal Offishall’s recent “Numba 1 (The Tide Is High),” Hilson feels she is ready to break out on her own terms. “A lot of people don’t do music that really represents them,” says Hilson. “They do music that represents the trend right now or something that they aren’t, and I didn’t want to do that. I said if I ever got my shine, I’m gonna be honest. And my music is definitely that.” Even a club-oriented song like her latest Polow Da Don-scored single “Turnin’ Me On,” featuring Lil’ Wayne, incorporates Hilson’s stated mantra. On the track, Hilson does not fall headlong in love with potential nocturnal suitors, Ÿber MC Weezy’s crude overtures included. “Recognize a real woman” is her pointed rebuttal to their lust-fuelled approaches after she outlines her rules of engagement.

“Everything I’ve done with Danja, Timbaland and Polow is always emotional,” says Hilson. “I feel that’s what sets me apart from anyone else that they work with. Even if it sounds trendy, it’s an extension — the true extension — of some strong emotion that I have. But even if I make light of it for the sake of it being a club song, it’s still emotional, because I have songs that you can play in the club; but if you sat in the car it would be thought-provoking, so I make sure that there’s a balance between the two.”

According to Hilson, In A Perfect World… does not shirk from showing her vulnerability — in fact, her favourite songs on the album are the ones that make her cry. Even though the featured producers, especially the aforementioned Timbaland, are currently known more for their up tempo, electro-infused sounds, Hilson sees these backdrops as the perfect complement to her lyrics. “That sound for me provokes some sort of emotion,” says Hilson. “I love writing about heartbreak and hardship and stuff like that, and the colder the track, the more it jerks out of me.”

Connecting with women in the way they communicate is a vaunted aim of Hilson’s songwriting; it’s an approach she’s tried to carry into the day-to-day reality of her career. While it may seem like she is surrounded by superstar male producers, Hilson is proud to point out that women are working on her management and choreography, and fast-rising Timbaland protege Marcella Araica helmed recording and mixing duties for the bulk of her record. “It’s all women running the show in my world,” says Hilson.

Ultimately though, she wants people to see through the machinations of the music industry and focus on the raw material of the songs and really find out who Keri Hilson is. “I want people to feel that, even though they may think of me as some cute face, as opposed to a singer or a personality or someone with feelings.

“They kind of make you an object, throwing all this makeup and accessories on you and making you a fashion icon,” says Hilson. “I want people to feel the music through all that. Yeah, all that’s cool, but I want to be known and respected as a musician, as the musician that I am.”

Originally published in Sway Magazine, Spring 2009

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