Lots of artists talk about keeping it “real.” But Keyshia Cole has dealt with a harsher kind of reality than most of her peers.
The 26-year-old R&B singer, with a pair of platinum albums to her credit, was a foster child and ultimately adopted by another family in her native Oakland, Calif., after her mother’s drug addiction landed her in jail. Cole also managed to survive singing with MC Hammer when she was an adolescent.
The latter aside, music has been a vehicle that’s allowed Cole to channel a lot of pain, and she notes now that “I have learned a lot, and I’ve overcome a lot from my past.” And she’s landed nicely on her feet.
Following contributions to the “Biker Boyz” and “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” soundtracks, Cole’s 2005 debut, “The Way It Is,” spawned the hits “I Should Have Cheated” and “Love” on its way to selling more than a million copies. Her sophomore set, “Just Like You,” came out in September and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart; its first single, “Let it Go” — which features Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim — made Cole the first female artist to land three consecutive No. 1 hits on the Nielsen Urban chart.
“Just Like You” also snagged a pair of Grammy Award nominations for Cole, including Best Contemporary R&B Album. Her reality show, “Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is,” is the No. 1 series in BET’s history.
Cole, whose first name is pronounced KEE-sha, has also been the featured singer on hits by Diddy, Young Jeezy and Sean Paul, and she and her manager, Manny Halley, have started a record label, Imani Entertainment, whose first artist, rapper Amina Harris, is featured on the “Just Like You” track “Shoulda Let You Go.”
Cole — who moved from Oakland first to Los Angeles and now lives in Atlanta — says she tries to handle the success with a degree of modesty and reverence.
“One of the first things I asked God for when I got into the business ... was that it (won’t) change me, ’cause if it does, I’d rather not be here,” she says. “I’d rather be back home in the hood just chillin’ with my family and doing what I do.
“It’s good to be here, but it ain’t that serious. It’s really not. And I just pray that even though He’s blessing me with this opportunity, He protects and shields me from everything that goes on in the music business.”
The key, according to Cole, is maintaining control of all facets of her career. “My thing was ... that we take care of our business,” Cole explains. “It’s one thing to have a man. It’s one thing to have a situation. But it’s another thing to be a business woman and take care of what you take care of in your life.”
She applies the same philosophy to her music. While she’s worked with a number of top-shelf collaborators on both her albums — “Just Like You’s” track stack includes hitmakers such as Elliott, Scott Storch, Rodney Jerkins, Ron Fair and Bryan-Michael Cox — Cole makes clear that she’s no producer’s puppet in the studio.
“I don’t work with producers,” she explains. “I love them. They all bring different things to the table, (but) I don’t even really see them. They already made the track; I don’t really need them there. They write their music, then I take the music and I write my vocals and my lyrics.”
The other great lesson, Cole says, is “sacrifice,” particularly in her personal life.
“I had to sacrifice love when I got here,” she notes, “ ’cause I don’t think being young and being in a relationship can really accommodate being in the music business very well. It’s a commitment when you’re dealing with a relationship — a real one, anyway — and it’s serious.
“I would definitely say it calls for sacrifice, and that could be anything.”
The rewards, however, continue to come. Cole just finished the second season of the reality show — in which she moved her mother and sister to Atlanta — and she’s in the midst of a North American tour with R. Kelly that finishes in mid-January. “Just Like You’s” third single, “I Remember,” is just out and is already in the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart.
She’ll also make her film debut, playing herself in the MTV-produced “How She Moves,” in the new year, though Cole says she’s really “not all that interested” in an acting career.
“I do want it to be real,” she explains. “There’s a lot of (singers) out there, the clothes they wear and the things they say don’t really reflect a lot on the things we really go through, y’know? Who you are and what you come across as is what really matters. It should be truthful, I think.”
Keyshia Cole performs as part of R. Kelly’s Double Up Tour at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 22) at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. J. Holiday is also on the bill. Tickets are $103, $88, $68 and $48. Call (313) 471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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