While most R&B and Dance Pop artists keep things light lyrically, singing playful songs about the opposite sex, going to clubs, partying and other just-for-fun subjects, there’s not much sweetness and light on K. Michelle’s debut album, Rebellious Soul. And don’t look for any typical heartbroken anthems, either.
“I just didn’t want to use the normal ‘my heart is broken up’ (lyrical approach) because there are a lot of things that women face that don’t just have to do with heartbreak,” Michelle says. “We face life, we face insecurities, self-esteem issues. I write in a different kind of way than other artists. I take it head on and I say exactly what women think.”
Michelle has gone through enough ups and downs to speak from experience on some of the tough topics that filter into her music.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Kimberly Michelle Pate (as she’s known on her birth certificate) was drawn to music growing up, but before she decided to make a serious run at a music career, she earned a degree in psychology from Florida A&M. Once she began to pursue music seriously, Michelle was signed to Jive Records in 2008.
She gained an early supporter and mentor in Jive labelmate R. Kelly. She worked on a debut album called Pain Medicine, which was being executive produced by Kelly and was slated to have guest appearances by Missy Elliott and Rick Ross, among others.
But the album was never released. Michelle, though, was hardly idle during her time on Jive, putting out three mixtapes that gained an underground following and a handful of singles.
But Michelle’s tenure on Jive may end up being best remembered for the controversy she generated when she accused label executive (and one-time boyfriend) Memphitz of physically abusing her. (Memphitz has emphatically denied the charges.) Michelle ended up negotiating her release from the label, even though it meant suddenly stepping into an uncertain future in music.
“I fought to get out of that deal,” Michelle says.
“I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get another deal. I didn’t know if it was going to be hard or if it was going to be easy. There were a lot of unanswered questions, but I just knew it was time for me to go.”
Michelle said she has no regrets about going public with her accusations about Memphitz, even though she has faced scrutiny over her statements.
“People needed to hear that. And I’m still going through my issues with that and I feel like I became the face for a lot of women,” Michelle says. “I’ve done the right thing in telling what I went through because a lot of women go through it and have related. And more women are coming out to speak about it.”
As it turned out, leaving Jive wasn’t much of a setback. Michelle got a break of another type when she was selected to join the cast of the VH1 series Love & Hip Hop Atlanta. The show gave the single mother a chance to tell viewers about her life, her music and her day-to-day challenges and triumphs.
Michelle left Love & Hip Hop Atlanta after her second season on the show, but she says she’s far from done with television.
“Love & Hip Hop Atlanta was great for me,” she says. “(But) I have a lot of things in the works at VH1, my own projects as well as some other things that I’m working on with them. You’re going to be seeing a lot of me.”
A spin-off show centered on Michelle called My Life will reportedly debut this fall, while recent reports say a Trapped in the Closet-like musical based on Rebellious Soul is also set to air on VH1 in the not-so-distant future.
The visibility Michelle gained through reality TV helped make her more marketable and generated interest from labels. She ended up signing with Atlantic Records, which released Rebellious Soul last summer. The album made a strong commercial impact, debuting at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart.
Rebellious Soul suggests Michelle could be a major star in R&B. Right away, her unvarnished lyrics separate her from most other R&B singers.
“My Life,” for instance, paints the picture of living through one struggle after another (“Where I’m from, it ain’t flowers and candy/I’m just happy the life didn’t get me”), while “Can’t Raise A Man” (a Top 25 R&B single) cautions women that they can’t change a guy who’s already fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the most moving moment comes on “I Don’t Like Me,” where Michelle sings about feeling beaten down and less-than-proud of herself.
The music is also impressive. Michelle’s strong vocals have drawn comparisons to the late Whitney Houston. Some of her songs have a silky beauty, but a few of her ballads (such as “My Life,” “Sometimes,” “Damn” and “Can’t Raise A Man”) have a grittier rhythmic presence. Slightly more up-tempo songs like the current single “V.S.O.P.” (which has a hint of ‘70s Philly Soul), “Pay My Bills” and “Ride Out” bring some needed energy to the album.
Michelle is trying to build on her momentum with a few live shows this summer. She says she plans to perform songs from her debut album, as well as her five mixtapes, in a show designed to please her female fans.
“(The live show) will just be exciting for the ladies, to laugh, cry, sing — kind of an intimate, one-on-one thing,” Michelle says. “That’s the way I like it. I like it to be me. I like the fans to feel like we’re just sitting at home and listening to some great music.” ©
K. MICHELLE performs Friday at the Macy’s Music Festival at Paul Brown Stadium. Tickets/more info: macysmusicfestival.com.