PHILADELPHIA—There’s a song on Kevin Michael’s debut CD called “Too Blessed,” in which the 22-year-old soul-pop phenom from Chester, Pa., announces that there really is nothing that can get him down.
“I’m too blessed to be stressed,” Michael sings, over old-school hip-hop scratches, and alongside a cameo by rapper Q-Tip. “And I’m too fresh to be depressed.”
On this rainy afternoon in Philadelphia, however, Michael has a bit of concern. Because, while the weather might not dampen his spirits as he closes in on the day he’s been waiting for all his life—the release, last week, of “Kevin Michael”—it just might dampen his `do.
He blows air through his lips in frustration when asked how he tends to his halo of curls in trying conditions. “A blow dryer, today. There’s no hat, no hoodie that can tame this thing,” he says, pointing to the visual calling card that could one day rival the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s as Philadelphia’s most famous, musical mushroom-cloud Afro.
On this day, hair maintenance is a must. Michael has a job to do later, after he’s done with this interview, talking in a West Philadelphia hotel restaurant about growing up as a mixed-race kid in Chester (the inspiration for his reggae-flavored collaboration with Wyclef Jean, “It Don’t Make Any Difference To Me”) and about his obsessed-fan feelings for Beyonce (“She’s perfect!”).
On this unseasonably cold summer day, Michael finds himself in a McDonald’s parking lot on Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia. Ronald McDonald is comfortable inside the fast-food joint, juggling bowling pins aboard his unicycle. But Michael is on a stage set up between Super Fresh on his right and the Show & Tell Gentleman’s Club across the street.
The event is part of McDonald’s Live, a concert series promoted on the Internet that features acts like Sean Kingston and Ne-Yo playing at Mickey D’s across the country. And it’s typical of the strategy being employed by Downtown Music, Michael’s label and the home of the Internet-marketing success story Gnarls Barkley.
The nasty weather keeps the crowd down, but the three dozen or so teenage girls in attendance seem to agree with the MC, who introduces Michael as “a brand-new artist, and he’s sexy, too.”
And Michael makes the most of the opportunity. Performing under a tent with the aid of a keyboard player and guitarist, his `fro flies high as he reveals an impressively Prince-ly falsetto on “Too Stressed,” “No Difference” and “We All Want the Same Thing,” the third in a trio of radio-ready positivity pop songs.
“Kevin Michael” (Downtown Music) isn’t just a feel-good album, though. It’s packed with Michael Jackson tributes such as “Stone Cold Killa” and nods to Prince, like the ballad “Ain’t Got You,” as well as more bass-heavy club tracks such as “Hood Buzzin.”
As a singer who easily slides into a silky, androgynous upper range, Michael shines throughout, even on such trifles as “Vicki Secrets,” an ode to undies, and the unintentional love-man parody, “Liquid Lava Love.” The album’s packed with enough funky potential hits to justify the money quote it elicited in an early review in Blender: “Justin Timberlake, meet your new competition.”
For a glimpse of just how confident an entertainer Michael already is, check out his McDonald’s performance on www.mcdlive.com. That’s just one readily available clip on the Web of Michael, who was born Kevin Michael Seward.
“Downtown is very smart with the Internet,” says Michael, who was actually signed by label head Josh Deutsch before Gnarls Barkley (soul singer Cee-Lo Green and producer Danger Mouse) broke out with the virally marketed CD St. Elsewhere, in 2006. “They had a lot of practice with Gnarls.”
Even before the completion of the album “Kevin Michael,” which was recorded in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Sweden (the home of producers Bloodshy and Avant), “they had me visiting ad agencies, ring-tone conventions. We did a whole EP just for iTunes. All these things just to create an online buzz.”
Michael’s been around the music business all his life. His father, who is African American and whose real name is Henry Seward, but who performs under the name Ric Star, worked in bands with names like the Mystique Experience.
Michael doesn’t play an instrument, but his dad plays guitar, drums, keyboards, “everything,” his son says. Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, Cameo, and Jimi Hendrix were always playing in his father’s house. “He had the word Love painted on the walls, and white doves flying around the house. I was destined to come out a little different.”
He was raised in a rowhouse by his mother, Tione Venditto, who’s half-Italian and half-black. “I always say: I’m from the `hood, but I’m not of the `hood. Because those type of things never interested me. I don’t knock anybody’s hustle at all. I came from Chester, that made me who I am,” says the singer, who mostly lives out of hotel rooms now. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. ... But drugs never interested me, hanging out on the corner all day never interested me.”
In “Difference,” the Kevin Michael song that will introduce him to the world, Michael sings of interracial romance: “Love ain’t got no color,” while Wyclef Jean’s chants of “One love, one love,” echo Bob Marley.
Growing up, “I always knew that I was mixed,” Michael says. “This is so stupid, how society is. But, for some mixed kids, it’s like you have to choose who you are. And sometimes that is determined by the color of your skin. How dark or light you came out. ... And I came out on the light-skinned side. Because of that, not everybody knew I was black. ... I had a lot of times with white kids where they assumed I was white and started throwing the N-word around. ...
“I was like, `What is going on?’ But I never let that affect me. I was not white when it’s convenient to be white, and black when it was convenient to be black. I honestly never thought of myself as anything other than me.”
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