Keke Wyatt is among a slew of R&B sisters (which includes Sunshine Anderson, Tweet, Blu Cantrell, and Syleena Johnson) that emerged in the new millennium to provide an alternative to the fast-food pop diva and the so-called neo-soul sister. She debuted on a couple of duets with male R&B singer Avant and then released her solo debut, Soul Sista, in 2001. The album eventually sold more than 500,000 copies.
Who Knew? comes after nine years of label changes, promotional singles, leaked songs, false starts, and personal problems that left fans of the songstress thinking that she’d never release a proper album again. Wyatt is clearlyaware of this fact, as she has crafted an album that is designed to let everyone know that she is here to stay. Who Knew? is built around Wyatt’s gospel-reared, wonderfully versatile voice, which, mostly, works out in fine, if uninspiring, fashion.
First single and title track “Who Knew?”, written by R&B star Tank (who by now should really be a much much bigger star) and produced by the Underdogs, sets the tone for most of the album. It’s a standard Underdogs track that puts all the attention on Wyatt’s lead vocal. There are three other Underdogs contributions, the best of which is “Weakest”, which strikes the right note of longing (despite a slightly overwrought vocal mix on the hook). All four Underdogs contributions are pretty standard R&B fare, and while pretty, offer little challenge to Wyatt.
Lucky then that Wyatt decided to pick up the pen and write a couple of gems herself: “Never Give Up” and “Daydreaming”. The stronger of the two, “Daydreaming”, is built around a simple snare loop and its sharply observant lyrics — “I know it ain’t right for me / To be thinkin’ bout loving you / I can’t tell my heart how to be / Is it cheating ’cause I’m daydreaming” — capture just the right reflective tone to sell the song’s meaning. It also has a simply gorgeous bridge that gives Wyatt the chance to vocalize to stunning effect. Album closer “Never Give Up” reunites Wyatt with Steve Huff, who wrote and produced Wyatt’s debut album, and shows that the two still have really good chemistry.
But it’s Wyatt’s cover of Rachelle Ferrell’s “Peace on Earth” that really showcases just how great a singer Wyatt can be when she has the right song. Unsurprisingly, it’s become something of a sensation online and here it is the album centerpiece. Tackling a song by Ferrell takes real guts — Ferrell is, without question, the finest jazz singer of her generation and a virtuoso — but Wyatt does a terrific job, turning the song into a straight ahead soul jam.
At just 10 tracks, there isn’t much room for filler on Who Knew? (though “Getting It” is really awful). But it does mean you have time to notice that the album has just one too many generic mid-tempo R&B songs that, though well-performed, make little impression after the first listen. Like far too many singers of her caliber, Wyatt mistakes the ability to sing anything with the belief that she should.
Still, Who Knew? proves that Wyatt is a terrific singer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this is a terrific album. It is not. But it is good enough to make Keke Wyatt a singer to watch.