For an artist who’s been in the industry for the better part of two decades, it’s curious to think of how little most people really know about Kelly Rowland: The conversation about the R&B chanteuse tends to revolve more around who she isn’t than who she is. But part of that, too, is the result of how many artistic identities Rowland has worn: First as the only other member of Destiny’s Child besides Beyonce to survive the line-up changes, then as a solo artist making tepidly inspirational pop-R&B, then as a flagging solo artist, then as a global chart-conquering dancefloor diva who teamed up with DJs like David Guetta and Alex Gaudino to win over the gays and the Europeans, and finally, back to urban radio with a more aggressively rhythmic edge and a burst of success.
After so many years of standing in Beyonce’s shadow and refusing to address it — valiantly trying on different artistic identities to try and find the right fit — she finally gave it attention in two pivotal ways: She roped in her Destiny’s Child cohort (as well as Michelle Williams) on a collaboration for the first time — it’s Kelly featuring Beyonce and Michelle, y’all! — which feels like a celebration of their sisterhood, a fond homage to their legacy. Simultaneously, she addressed her resentments on “Dirty Laundry,” a confessional ballad about domestic violence and her tortured relationship with Beyonce’s success; it’s the most bracingly direct song I’ve heard since Angel Haze‘s “Cleaning Out My Closet.” Instead of pretending that Beyonce doesn’t exist, she acknowledged both the good and the bad.
Those strides do fine work to make her feel more human and relatable than she’s ever been before. Accordingly, Kelly Rowland’s Talk a Good Game , out , feels cohesive, versatile, and authentic; and most of all, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt like I know who Kelly Rowland is.
But there’s still a versatility at play that feels welcome, like she’s working quite hard to cross all her Is and dot all her Ts: The bangers are super sexy and the ballads are super soulful; there’s enough driving-through-Atlanta-with-the-top-down midtempos to satisfy. The Pusha T-assisted, Pharrell-produced “Street Life” positively bumps, while the Joni Mitchell-sampling “Gone,” with Wiz Khalifa, is appealing despite how tired its interpolation feels, but “I Remember,” a synth-laden dance ballad, soars the most. (There’s something about her voice that just fits a four-on-the-floor beat like a glove; no wonder she kept collaborating with Guetta.) Unsurprisingly, hearing the Destiny’s Child trio reunited on “You Changed” is a highlight — especially because the song is so full of spunk and attitude, the track so breezily infectious.
And as it turns out, on Game, Rowland is the consummate mainstream R&B artist: There’s nothing here that’s overly experimental or too challenging; she pretty much just gets it right throughout, hitting all the marks. That’s a welcome change.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: As per usual, one of the album’s strongest offerings is a bonus track: The The-Dream-assisted “Sky Walker,” which sees Kelly cooing, “You need a main girl who fucks you like a side chick” over ad libs from Terius. It’s kind of weird and totally great.
Pops Like: The perfect radio R&B album, cooked up in a lab somewhere.
Full Disclosure: It bothers me that so many of the other key players in the Destiny’s Child extended universe — especially Kelly Rowland and Solange (although honestly, there’s a special place in my heart for LeToya‘s last record, too) — have struggled to find success while Beyonce has dominated in the spotlight. I was rooting really hard for this one. I’m glad it’s good.