(Photo: Derek Blanks)
By Jon Wiederhorn
She pulled no punches when she squared off with other members of two seasons of the VH1 reality show "Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta." But the K. Michelle who greeted Yahoo Music the day before the release of her debut album "Rebellious Soul" didn't want to fight or talk smack.
Whether she discussed her latest single, fielded questions about the reality show that boosted her public profile, or promoted her appearances at women’s shelters, K. Michelle was somewhat guarded and short of words, yet she definitely wasn't lacking in confidence.
"I just do music. That’s why I’m here," she quietly said from an office chair at her New York record label. "I make great music. I don’t care what people think of me. The music is more important to me and the people who can relate to it are the only ones who matter."
Maybe K. Michelle has learned that speaking through her spirited, powerful vocals is more meaningful than raising her voice or throwing hissfyfits on TV. That could all change faster than the weather in the Caribbean, but right now her goal is to get people to listen to "Rebellious Soul," and that's actually not presenting much of a challenge.
The first single, "V.S.O.P." went Top 20 and is still shaking up urban radio and the album has already earned positive reviews from Vibe and the New York Times. "V.S.O.P.," a candid song about being with someone who's seeing someone else, is representative of the dysfunctional characters that abound throughout "Rebellious Soul." K. Michelle said she wrote the songs about real people in her life. "If I have a relationship with someone, I write about them," she told Yahoo.
K. Michelle wouldn't say who "V.S.O.P." is about or directly address the subject matter. "It’s just a soulful record," she explained, evading the question. "It's an amazing record, and it’s doing really well." After a long pause she added a vague description: "It’s about actually being with someone, liking that person and being there for them."
One track on "Rebellious Soul," "Damn," was penned about ex-NFL star Chad OchoCinco Johnson, who K. Michelle dated for a spell and who once bought her a monkey. "It’s about where I was in my life at that time," she said. "It’s not a [mean] song at all."
It's understandable that K. Michelle is reluctant to reveal much about herself or deliver racy comments about past controversies, including her mix tape “0 F--ks Given” and her outbursts on “Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta,” one of which threatened her relationship with her label Atlantic Records. Had the deal gone belly-up it would have been the second time she was left in the lurch by the music industry. She doesn't want to ruin a good thing, so she usually holds her tongue.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, K. Michelle developed an early interest in music and took piano for years before she started vocal lessons with legendary child vocal coach Bob Westbrook. It looked like she was being groomed to be the next Whitney Houston or Mary J. Blige, and hard work yielded positive results. In her teens, she worked with a well-connected lawyer, who set up a meeting with her and Jive Records. Impressed by her vocal range and the emotional resonance of her singing, the company signed her in December 2008.
She released several singles, including the racy "Fakin’ It," which featured Missy Elliott, but failed to make a solid dent in the R&B market. Before she started working on her debut album, Jive released her from the label. "I wondered, 'Why Me? Why was that happening to me?,'" she said in her most candid moment of the interview. "I realized everything happens for a reason and it was to toughen me up and make me really ready for the world."
To boost her exposure while she scrambled to restructure her career with new label Warner Bros., K. Michelle accepted a spot on "Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta."
"There was a strategy there for me, but it basically took on a life of its own," she admitted. "The reality show [distracted people from my music] all the time. But you just have to fight back and keep the main thing the main thing. I don't look back and regret anything. It was all a part of learning."
For K. Michelle, the greatest challenge she faced over the past 18 months was being able to focus on her record at the same time as she was shooting the reality show. Being badmouthed by viewers never bothered her. She just wanted to make sure her record wouldn't suffer. "I don’t listen to people, so I don’t know what they think," she said. "I don’t care. I developed a thick skin through years of going through things and being able to deal with them. But there was a lot going on all the time while I was working on 'Rebellious Soul.' I was doing everything at the same time so I had to keep telling myself to stay focused and just make it happen."
She worked in the studio with various producers, including Pop & Oak (Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean) and Eric Hudson (Kanye West, Ne-Yo, Trey Songz), and titled her album 'Rebellious Soul' because she liked the double entendre. Not only is K. Michelle an individual who doesn't like to play by the rules, her songs are sometimes racy and provocative, which is more common in hip-hop than R&B. "I don’t think anything's confrontational about speaking your mind in your music," she said. "I think people are ready. There are songs on there for everybody. We’re here to make music and tell life stories. We’re not here to sugarcoat it and raise people's kids."
Expounding on her rebel streak, K. Michelle explained that she doesn't try to push people’s buttons or defy expectations. She just writes down how she feels and then sings in the most natural way possible. "I’m just me," she said. "And I naturally go against topics and do things that are not normal. I don't stick in a box. I just do what I feel."
For someone so stubborn and self-confident, K. Michelle also has her vulnerable side. One of the most emotional songs on 'Rebellious Soul' is "I Don’t Like Me," which includes the line, "All that I can see is that she is prettier than me/ Damn, I wish I had her body, I can hear my self-esteem."
"That’s about being at a point in your life when you see that there are things about you that you just don’t like," she said. "You might have a day when you don’t feel pretty. It could be anything.”
The day "Rebellious Soul" was released, K. Michelle went to a New York women’s shelter to encourage the residents to be strong and fight to overcome negative experiences, including, racism, sexual abuse and domestic violence. She has been speaking at such shelters across the country as part of her Rebel Against campaign, which has worked with such organizations as Saving Our Daughters. As a fellow victim of personal trauma (which she won’t talk about) K. Michelle feels it's important to be there for those who have faced hardship.
"I’m just doing it because I want to help," she said. "A lot of women I meet actually say I've changed their lives."
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