KeKe Wyatt: Soul Sista

Keke Wyatt
Soul Sista

If you’re going to the club or to the salon to get your hair done, then Ketara “KeKe” Wyatt is singing for you. The syrupy dance tracks that dominate her debut, Soul Sista, are perfect mood music. If you’re looking for soul stirring, old-school R&B, reconsider picking this one up.

Wyatt could have had a decent album with Soul Sista. She has a beautiful voice. She’s not exactly a trendsetter — enough with the Chloe glasses already — but anyone who can cover a classic like Patti Labelle’s “If Only You Knew” and pull it off is clearly capable of greatness. Potential is not always enough, however, and the thrown-together production of Soul Sista proves that. Cookie cutter crooning can only get you so far, even if you can cover a classic amazingly well.

Her voice has the heft of Monica’s, and echoes some of Faith Evans’ riffs during the album’s better moments. There are even remnants of Heavy D’s protegee Monifah in her style. It takes a couple of spins to pick up on her talent, though, because many of the songs are lyrically one-dimensional. The production, thrown together by Steve “Stone” Huff, is also disappointingly monotonous. To keep from falling into that musical abyss known as the discount section at the record store, Wyatt will need more songwriters and producers on her next album.

While Wyatt reaches for emotion, little of it is translated into the total effect of her songs. A perfect example of this is “I Don’t Wanna” which starts: “Sleeping in the bed that I paid for / Used to have a job but he don’t no more / I don’t wanna turn my back on you, I don’t wanna do what my girls say do.” The same type of generic rambling resurfaces in “Bad Boy” and the obvious club-track, “I Can’t Wait”.

Like most bad efforts, there are some songs that shine. “Nothing in This World”, featuring Avant, is a dynamic duet. Not only is it a pretty and smooth ballad, but her gospel influence reverberates throughout.

Wyatt, Indianapolis-born but Kentucky-based, is from a family of musicians. Her mother was a vocalist, her dad an organist. For those reasons, the absence of musical depth and profundity on Soul Sista is perplexing. Her parents sang in church, and from the emotive reaches of her voice, it’s clear that she’s rocked a choir robe or two as well. For most singers, a traditional church upbringing (think half of all R&B singers) only adds flair and passion to their art.

As an adolescent, she was a member of an early version of Destiny’s Child — long before the divas dominated R&B and pop. It’s possible that if she had stuck with Beyonce, she might have had better luck leaping from obscurity. Instead, she met Huff, a producer who has worked with the legendary Isley Brothers and Joe of “Things Your Man Won’t Do” fame. Last year around this time, KeKe was the better part of a touching duet with MCA labelmate, Avant.

Avant, to refresh your memory, debuted with 2000 with My Thoughts and was hailed as the “new voice of ghetto soul”. He borrowed so heavily from R. Kelly that he might has well have done a cover of “I Believe I Can Fly”. Avant and Wyatt did a remake of the 1983 Rene and Angela ballad “My First Love” and sang the hell out of it. People were asking themselves, ‘Who is that girl in the video?’ Avant’s release, My Thoughts went platinum. He disappeared shortly thereafter. This year, Keke Wyatt has provided an answer to that question and Avant has resurfaced.

Part of what makes their musical pairing interesting is that a similar couple preceded them. Four years ago, Sparkle sang a duet with Chicago native R. Kelly. They inspired a contemporary discussion of the boundaries of modern relationships with a vivid and threatening duet entitled “Be Careful”. There were rumors that the two were involved, since R. Kelly was still licking his wounds from a break-up (or divorce?) from Aaliyah. To be fair, Sparkle had potential. But she became a blip on the talent radar compared to the likes of Tamia, Deborah Cox and my favorite hollerating diva, Mary J. Blige.

It’s not exactly accurate to compare Sparkle with Wyatt — the latter has more potential than Sparkle and tries to make her material interesting. Her intonations reveal the childhood influences of high octave divas Deniece Williams and Chaka Khan and she has a way of singing that could be phenomenal. But on Soul Sista, she follows the formula of one-hit songstresses too much.

“Don’t Take Your Love” is a generic example of denial at the end of a relationship, while “Push Me Away” strives for desperation and takes an overbearingly melancholy tone. Some of what makes these songs disappointing is that much of her material is written by Huff. He doesn’t do a bad job of penning material — after all, it’s not painful to listen to — but much of it does sound like it’s been bumped in your stereo before.

It must be hard to be an R&B singer trying to establish oneself in this era of merging genres and slow songs coupled with hip-hop choruses. Soul Sista is an example of what happens when a good voice is subjected to bad music and overdone concepts. Still, there is some evidence that KeKe Wyatt is beyond the candy-coated type of rhythm and blues that has ruled the airwaves over the last decade. Her debut does little to set her apart from other singers, but it will interesting to see if she lives up to being a true soul sista the next time around.