October 22, 2002.
In October 2002, I was twelve years old, eagerly anticipating the release of the second solo album from the ladies of Destiny’s Child. They were, and are, my favorites. I refused to choose a favorite between the three ladies, and that still holds true today. Regardless, I was hype to hear Kelly’s album.
Originally scheduled for a mid-2003 release with Beyoncé’s solo set slated for the fall of 2002, what would become Simply Deep was born prematurely. Due to the massive success of Kelly’s duet with Nelly, “Dilemma,” she was rushed into the studio to start – and finish – her debut solo album. The goal was for the album to be released before anyone had the chance to forget about “Dilemma.” As logical as this might have been from a commercial standpoint, it was hardly fair to Kelly from an artistic one. Still, she got it done. Kelly Rowland, at 21, managed to craft an album boasting a unique fusion of Pop-rock, R&B and Hip-Hop sounds she wanted represent as the burgeoning starlet and artist she was then.
In Destiny’s Child’s autobiography, released earlier in 2002, each of the ladies outlined their solo album wishlist, if you will… and tried to detail what vibe they hoped their albums would give, sonically. Kelly expressed a desire to add a pop-rock flare to her sound, and mentioned something to the effect of having female “Lenny Kravitz” aspirations. In an interview I personally conducted with Kelly in 2008, she laughed when I brought that up, but simply said that had since changed her focus, despite still loving Lenny and rock music. However, on Simply Deep, the desire was quite clear.
Despite her label wanting to capitalize on the success of “Dilemma,” Kelly’s debut solo single sounded nothing like it. “Stole” is a pop-rock ballad, guided by guitars, with a socially conscious message – not a soulful, Patti LaBelle sampling Hip-Hop love ballad. Still, “Stole” managed to crack the top 40 and perform even better outside of the United States, helping Simply Deep to sell around 600,000 copies stateside.
With “Stole,” Kelly showed that she wanted her music to have some depth by talking about serious topics like teen suicide and school shootings. Aptly titled Simply Deep, the album introduced us to Kelly Rowland – the solo artist, an artist who has become multifaceted, but still, ultimately just that – simply deep.
Aside from it’s lead single “Stole,” Kelly’s debut is filled with songs that go beyond the commercial sensibilities one would expect from one third of music’s biggest girl group – they go deeper. “Haven’t Told You,” for example, is a gorgeous guitar-driven acoustic ballad showcasing her vulnerability via its lyrics, and her gorgeous, soulful, yet pristine voice via a subdued but apt vocal performance. The title track, a duet with (and co-written by) a then 16 year old Solange Knowles, further showcases this side of Kelly. Most notably, the pair collaborated on “Beyond Imagination,” the album’s most personal moment. Here, Kelly expresses pain related to her childhood.
“Beyond Imagination” is a metaphorical rock-tinged ballad detailing her pain, and opened the floodgates to what would be a long career of very cathartically personal songs for Kelly Rowland. On each of her albums, there is at least one, if not more, deeply and directly personal song. In this way, Kelly makes herself akin to inspirations such as Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. Like those two, she avoids being indirect or generalizing – instead, she speaks directly about her experiences and in very specific in detail. It has something that her fans have come to expect, and a reason for her having such a strong connection. “Beyond Imagination” was indeed a prelude to songs like “Still In Love With My Ex” and “Dirty Laundry.”
Elsewhere on the album, things are a bit less serious. On uptempo jams like third-single “Can’t Nobody” (a Rich Harrison production before Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” made him a go-to producer), “Past 12,” and “Love/Hate” (penned by then-BFF Brandy) show Kelly could serve a cute, danceable bop.
On the guitar driven tracks “Every Time You Walk Out That Door,” “(Love Lives In) Strange Places” and the album’s final single “Train on a Track,” the pop-rock influence continues. Meanwhile, mid-tempo grooves like “Obsession” and “Heaven” showcase a clear affinity for yet another one of her inspirations, Sade. Still finding her voices, it was great to her Kelly explore sonic landscapes, building harmonies and arrangements on her own on tracks like these, and her voice truly soared.
In short, Simply Deep was the first and necessary step for a then 21 year old Rowland into adulthood, womanhood and independence. She expanded beyond the confines of her group Destiny’s Child, delving into different sounds, lyrical themes and deeper levels of introspection within her music. After all, as a member of a unified group, there’s naturally a limit to how truly personal the music can be. When solo, all that changes. And, for Ms. Rowland, it changed for the deeper.