July 26, 2011.
Five years ago today, Kelly Rowland released her third album, Here I Am – a proclamation of freedom and artistic rebirth that cemented her place as not just the chick who was second to Beyoncé. However, it seemed, as with every Kelly Rowland album, there has been some sort of unforeseeable fuck-shit to get in the way of the great potential that the body of work held. Unfortunately, with Here I Am (and Talk a Good Game that followed), the same was true. Make no mistake; I have been a fan of Kelendria Trene Rowland since 1999 when I was perched at my TV watching the “Bills, Bills, Bills” video and have supported her every step of the way since; with and without Destiny’s Child. However, stan as I may, I can recognize the flaws in her album campaigns. Not from a place of critique, but from a place of frustration that these awesome albums she created went largely unnoticed and underrated by the general public.
Before I get into the specifics on Here I Am, allow me to recount the eras that preceded it. For her debut album, which ended up being released in October 2002 and titled Simply Deep, the plan was for her to be the last of the DC trio to release an album – after Beyoncé. However, in the summer of 2002, Nelly released his Nellyville album featuring a little duet you might recall, “Dilemma” – and that created a dilemma indeed. Though it was planned for release later down the line, “Dilemma” ended up being picked up by radio and shot to the top of the charts where it stayed for 10 weeks. Kelly was the first to have a #1 single (though, it was her last in the US) and the pressure was on from Columbia, and Mathew Knowles, for Kelly to deliver an album to capitalize on its success. In a months time, Kelly cranked out Simply Deep, its lead single, “Stole,” and its rush release hurt its chances for success. It was too little, too soon for America; though it was a big hit internationally. Similar issues arose for her sophomore set. Originally titled My Story: Kelly Rowland, the follow up to Simply Deep was set to be released in the summer of 2006. However, under the guise of “not being finished,” Kelly was sent back to the studio and her album pushed back to 2007 in favor of Beyoncé’s B’Day release going forth in September 2006. Mathew didn’t want them to compete, understandably. She released Ms. Kelly in 2007 to moderate success in the US, and generating a huge hit internationally in 2008 with the Freemasons Mix of “Work” that introduced her to the dance music scene.
The next year, in 2009, love took over, and so did Kelly, when she collaborated with David Guetta on the worldwide smash “When Love Takes Over,” fired Mathew Knowles as her manager and left Columbia Records. Kelly became the modern day Donna Summer and the uncrowned, pioneering Queen of vocal Euro-dance-Pop. To this day, she does not receive the due credit that she deserves (and DC sister Michelle Williams – just listen to her 2008 dance-pop album, Unexpected). Rihanna and others would never have had the dance hits they had if not for Kelly Rowland’s “When Love Takes Over.”
Anyway, hot off the success of “When Love Takes Over,” she began work on her third studio album. The campaign began in 2010 with the release of “Commander,” “Grown Woman,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” “Forever and a Day,” and a series of other leaks, but ultimately the dance-pop album never came to fruition due to a messy new label.
With no release date in sight, Kelly decided to go back to studio and back to her R&B roots, from which she birthed Here I Am and its lead single, “Motivation.” Released in 2011, during the same period as Beyoncé’s 4 era. This time, there was no Mathew Knowles to stop them from “competing.” With Here I Am, Kelly sought to break free of the Queen B’s shadow. And she succeeded.
“Motivation,” helmed by Rico Love and featuring Lil’ Wayne, was a monster hit. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B songs chart where it stayed for nearly the entire summer. It even managed to peak at #17 on the Hot 100 and #24 on the Mainstream Top 40. Had the song been sent to Pop at the same time as it was to Urban/Rhythmic radio, it likely would have placed much higher overall. Regardless, it went on to sell over 2 million downloads and cemented Kelly’s place as an R&B superstar in her own right. Finally, here she was: Kelly Rowland. Not “of Destiny’s Child.” Just Kelly.
Unfortunately, her label dropped the ball after that. Promotion for the album itself was weak, and, in general, it was released too long after the song’s peak. The second single, “Lay It On Me,” had all the makings of a hit but none the push. Sent to radio in August, but with no music video til October, and then they wondered why it flopped. Unsurprisingly, it ended up being the album’s last single stateside, with dance number “Down For Whatever” getting a release internationally. With her follow up album, Talk a Good Game, it was more of the same messiness despite the fact that she had delivered the best album of her career. We’re still waiting on the next one… but, back to Here I Am.
Now, to get a little more personal. I have so many fond memories surrounding this album and its songs, all the way back to its 2010 beginnings. Success and all that aside, I loved the music and in the summer of 2010, I was so hype because I got to see Kelly not once but twice in two different free, small-venue shows in NYC that August. She performed the singles thus far, some older cuts, and famously debuted “I’m Dat Chick,” which ended up being the first track on Here I Am. Here’s my video from the front row of that performance, all those moons ago, there I was:
The best memory of all about this night was not only that she made incessant eye contact with my friends and I, but because she so graciously stopped to take selfies with us after the show. Not only did I forge new, long-lasting friendships from those two back-to-back days of Kelly Rowland shows, but also unforgettable memories with one of my favorite divas. She slays. We slay.
Anyway, unfortunately, we had to wait until the NEXT summer for the album, but that’s fine, because that meant more NYC appearances. The week of the album release, she appeared on BET’s 106 & Park and there I was. I don’t know where the screenshot is now, I’m sure it’ll pop up on my Facebook Memories soon, but I was perched right behind her as she was interviewed, wearing a shirt with the album cover on it. During one of the breaks from filming, she recognized me and gave me a big ole hug. Life made.
But, Here I Am means more to me than just a few good memories in the presence of Kelly herself. I have specific memories attached to many of the songs. For “I’m Dat Chick,” it’s for sure seeing it performed live for the very first time. For “Motivation,” it’s being in Salamanca, Spain when it was released and listening to it on repeat in my single dorm room and wishing I was home in the US to experience how it was blowing up on the airwaves. I was so proud of her. “Lay It On Me” reminds me of my summer in NYC, in my own apartment, dating a special someone. “Feeling Me Right Now” is just a damn anthem, especially if you’re #teamsingle. “Turn It Up” is the sort of Mariah-level shade I LIVE for, and became particularly appropriate for a situation I went through. “All of the Night” and “Keep It Between Us” (along with “Motivation”) made their way onto a certain, frequently used playlist ;). As well, “Keep It Between Us” had a gorgeous, self-funded video filmed in Paris which makes me yearn to return to the city every time I watch it. The song is definitely an underrated gem in her catalogue.
“Commander” takes me back to the early days of the era, when my friends on my message board DC3 Forever and I all thought Kelly was going to blow up as the Queen of Dance (but, instead, the world picked Rihanna). “Heaven and Earth” became an anthem for me in a very personal family struggle, while “Each Other,” one of my favorites, was a frequent spin while living in Manhattan during the fall of 2010. “Down For Whatever” is good for a dance moment, but doesn’t compare to some of the left-off cuts from the original 2010 sessions, such as “Forever and a Day” (an anthem even now, when driving my new convertible). “Grown Woman” became a go-to when dealing with messy friend-drama, and “Shake Them Haters Off,” too. “On & On” is dance-pop perfection that was a hit waiting to happen! Kelly gave us a lot of music over this two year span; so much that I have it all separated into two albums in my iTunes: Commander, and Here I Am.
Here I Am, in the end, turned out to be an amalgamation of nearly every sound that Kelly had flirted with over the years. R&B, Pop, Dance, Hip-Hop, and the like, spanning topics of self-empowerment, sex, love, break-ups, and, well, good ole’ fun, were all represented on the album. Not only that, but she completed revamped her image too, owning her sexuality, and most importantly, her dark-skinned goddess status.
So, while it isn’t her best album, with Here I Am she made her most important statement and found her best success yet in “Motivation,” cementing herself as a solo star and as an artist with a voice. When she followed it up just two years later with Talk a Good Game, her sound and voice were both poised, defined and undeniably Kelly Rowland. And, as a fan, I couldn’t have been prouder.