When I hear Beyoncé — excuse me, “Sasha Fierce” — say “a diva is a female version of a hustler” over a bubbling stutter-stepping background, I’m inclined to believe her. If I put aside the minor detail of why the word “hustler” has to be broken down into male and female versions, I can kind of dig the overall sentiment.
The problem is that female hustlers seem to be just as anonymous and nondescript as their male counterparts. For every male “pimp”, “playa”, “boss”, and “mack”, there is presumably a lady of equivalent measure. Unfortunately, they all sound alike! If you’ve heard one dancing “diva”, you can almost say you’ve heard them all.
Oh sure, you can argue that nobody sounds like Sasha Fierce, and maybe Beyoncé has been, as she says in “Diva”, the “hottest chick in this game for a minute”. But so many of our ladies inhabiting the “diva” strain of pop and R&B have an interchangeable sound. Setting aside physical appearance, since they do at least look noticeably different, it’s tough to listen to a song and distinguish one diva, or female version of a hustler, from another. Beyoncé, Ashanti, Mya, Rihanna, Ciara, Cassie, Christina Milian, Teairra Mari, Solange, Keyshia Cole, Brooke Valentine, and Amerie — among others — have all fallen prey to blandness and predictability at one time or another. And, yeah, you read that “Solange” right. Even Solange Fierce found enough of a groove on her enjoyable retro Sol-Angel & the Hadley St. Dreams.
Along these lines, Keri Hilson’s In a Perfect World… presents an interesting conundrum that involves a type of boomerang effect. As a whole, the album suffers from an overriding sense of sameness, of mood as well as in relation to the current R&B landscape. By R&B, though, I don’t mean the Lalah Hathaway style, or even the type fashioned by Alicia Keys, Amel Larrieux, or Jill Scott. I’m talking about an aesthetic that’s in line with T-Pain and The-Dream, mixed with what you might call the “diva” spirit — sassy, flirtatious, and overflowing with attitude.
The interesting part of this for Keri Hilson, the boomerang effect of it, is that she has contributed to the very musical climate against which In a Perfect World… is being compared. So, in a sense, if she “sounds like everybody else”, it’s partly because she, as songwriter and guest-vocalist-hook-lady has helped to define the parameters. Ms. Hilson has written songs for, and co-written songs with, a variety of artists, among them Omarion’s “Ice Box” and Britney Spears’s “Gimme More”. But her songwriting, whether for others or on her own release, isn’t particularly sweeping or breathtaking. I mean, Omarion’s “Ice Box”. C’mon.
Regarding In a Perfect World…, it’s a bit melodramatic in places and maybe a touch too hip for its own good. You know, too much attitude in the faster numbers and club bangers, and not enough musical or lyrical substance. Quantity isn’t Keri Hilson’s dilemma. It’s quality. To say that this prolific writer and sought-after singer sounds too much like the climate she helped to influence is kind of ironic. But it’s true, evidenced by how typical the album sounds as a modern R&B release. Produced by Timbaland and Polow Da Don, two of the hottest producers around, In a Perfect World… finds Ms. Hilson mining the usual topics of relationships (“Energy”, “Alienated”, “Knock You Down”), physical attraction (“Slow Dance”, “Turning Me On”), scrubs (the auto-tuned “Get Your Money Up”), and lovemaking (“Make Love”). There’s nothing wrong with familiar subject matter as long as our familiarity is given a fresh spin, either in sound or lyrical content.
Lyrically, the album sits well within the sassy-meets-flirty approach that has become the norm. It’s fun, to a certain degree, especially if you can avoid taking the “independent woman” declarations too seriously. It’s one thing for Aretha to sing about “respect”. Besides the obvious sincerity in her delivery, the lyrics support her mission statement. When Keri Hilson, on the other hand, says, “Now wait a minute lil busta / you got one more time to feel on my booty”, it undermines the “recognize a real woman” mantra that comes later. Why, I kept thinking, did that “lil busta” get away with the first feel? I almost lapsed into one of those “back in the day” rants I hate so much. A little somethin’ like this: You know, back in my day, Salt-N-Pepa would’ve never stood for some “busta” feelin’ on their “boo-tee”, ’cause they made songs like “Tramp” (“You ain’t getting’ paid, you ain’t knockin’ boots / You ain’t treatin’ me like no prostitute!”) and “Showstopper” (“The boy was rude, I didn’t approve / He tried to make a move, I said, ‘Stop it, Dude!'”). Ignore the “feel on my booty” stuff and you can at least get your dance on.
The delivery doesn’t add much, as Ms. Keri scrolls through a series of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Ciara impressions. As a result, she never quite sounds comfortable as herself. Add to that the hooks, which are mostly derived from repeating key words or phrases incessantly, almost mindlessly (the Kanye and Ne-Yo-assisted “Knock You Down” is guilty as charged here), and the vocals show promise but fail to distinguish the Hilson brand from the crowd. Hook-wise, it’s a little like listening to an album of kids chanting while playing double-dutch.
I was looking for more personality from this album, something along the lines of Ms. Hilson’s playful mixtape Ms. Keri. Some of the songs from the mixtape appear on the album, but there are also some fascinating, if silly, surprises left behind, such as her refashioning of LL Cool J’s Timbaland-laced “Head Sprung” (“They call me…Miss Keri,” she bellows) and odes to her uncomfortable (“High Heels”) and favorite beverage of “Henny” and apple juice (“Happy Juice”). Note that she does sound a little like Beyoncé in some of these mixtape songs, just like on the album, but that’s all right. There’s still more life to them than some tracks that made the LP.
Speaking of Queen B, the mixtape also has a remix of the single “Turnin’ Me On”, featuring T-Pain and Lil Wayne (and there’s one floating around with T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and T.I., a trio I refer to as “Lil T.I. Wayne”). Here, Ms. Keri’s opening salvo is “I shot the sheriff but wait ’til I shoot these b*tches down”. Then she takes another shot, “Your vision’s cloudy if you think that you’re the best / You can dance, she can sing but need to move it to the…”, and on the version I heard, the deejay stops her, saying, “Don’t do it to ’em”, but the rest of that sentence is supposedly “…to the left, to the left.” (Oh, no she didn’t! Sike! Oh, yes, she did!)
As you can imagine, the grapevine was ripe with gossip that she was calling out real people, like Beyoncé and Ciara. Doesn’t matter if that was what she was doing or not. What matters is that she exhibited major fire, even if you think she must’ve bumped her head to be going after Sasha Fierce like that. She exuded confidence among her very popular guest stars and she commanded the performance.
Compare that to In a Perfect World…, where the beats usually offer more layering than the vocals, and the backdrop gets consistently busier than the vocal work in the foreground. Sometimes the music simply offers an intriguing element that gets looped unyieldingly throughout. That’s the case with the snake-charming loop of “Intuition”. Variety would have helped, simply by downplaying the loop during the verses and bringing it back in for the hooks, or vice versa. And, hey, whose idea was it to add that high-pitched sound to “Alienated”? It’s like someone was playing a video game during the recording session and the music from the game got added to the mix. Sometimes the music simply fails to fit the tone of the song, as when the bottom-heavy and bouncy “How Does It Feel” recalls Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”. The beat exists in a happy, danceable vacuum that obscures the distress in the lyrics. It’s a lot like CeCe Peniston’s long ago hit “Keep on Walking” in this regard, which disguised its kiss-off behind celebratory piano and a triumphant rhythm. Having said that, “How Does It Feel” is nevertheless one of the album’s better numbers, especially when it comes to the faster tracks.
So, there is hope. The slower tracks (“Slow Dance” and “Make Love”, in particular) tend to provide better matches between the vocals and the music, since the backdrop keeps things simple and the lyrics don’t always fall into slang and unintentional irony. Here, the task is to be vulnerable and to convey tenderness. Otherwise, the harder edged attitude of a song like “Turnin’ Me On” would ruin the mood — unless you’re into that sort of thing.
This is where the album shows the most potential, and gives us our best look at Keri Hilson’s rising star. We need to see her with more transparency, less armor. More of her inner core and less of the slick veneer. She’s got the diva part down. Now’s the time to show us what makes her tick.