The young R&B vocalist Keyshia Cole "sings love stories that could almost be war stories," wrote Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times. The Oakland, California-raised songstress broke through to national prominence with her 2005 debut album, The Way It Is, and thanks to the rough, down-to-earth edge in her voice she was hailed in some quarters as a potential successor to R&B superstar Mary J. Blige. Chuck Arnold of People opined that "[a]t its best, Cole's debut recalls the raw emotion, gritty realism and street beats of Blige's landmark first album, 1992's What's the 411?." The honest quality of Cole's music wasn't manufactured by music-industry marketers; she wrote many of her own songs and they drew directly on the experiences of her own troubled past.
Escaped Rough Beginnings
Cole was born on October 24, 1983 (some sources say 1981). She grew up in foster care in Oakland after having been adopted by Yvonne Cole, a friend of hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur. "I went through a lot as a young girl," she recalled to Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That's why I'm so serious and determined to make it in this business. So I can help young ladies in general; but especially those in foster care, who I know need help finding jobs, and just getting their goals in line."
Setting her sights early on a music career, she talked Oakland rapper MC Hammer into giving her a backup vocal slot and a chance to record with him while she was still a pre-teen, according to her official Web site biography. By the end of her teens she had broken into the Bay Area's hip-hop and R&B scenes, appearing on recordings by rapper Messy Marv ("Nubian Queen") and Tony! Toni! Toné! sideman Dwayne Wiggins (the soundtrack for the film Me and Mrs. Jones). It was a romantic breakup, Cole recalled on her Web site, that led her to make the move to Los Angeles and its bigger music industry: shortly after catching her boyfriend with another woman, she jumped into her car and made the nine-hour drive south.
Her track record and her songwriting talent quickly set her apart from the crowd of other aspiring stars, and she was signed to the A&M label by its president, Ron Fair. A duet with Eve on the soundtrack of the film Barbershop 2, "Never," helped give her exposure, and some top production talent was lined up for her first solo effort, titled The Way It Is: R&B singer DaRon from the group 112, rapper Chink Santana, and above all superstar hip-hop artist Kanye West, with whom Cole toured as an opening act. "He's like my brother. He knows exactly what he wants," Cole told Jet. "He goes exactly for what he wants; he's definitely music motivated; he loves to use live instruments. Touring as the opening act was a lot of fun and I learned the ropes of being on tour."
Album Opened Strong
A promotional mixtape called "Team Invasion Presents Keyshia Cole," featuring unreleased duos with Remy Ma and Ghostface, helped build a buzz around Cole's upcoming album release, and The Way It Is was released in the spring of 2005, with "I Changed My Mind" as the first single. Produced by West, the track featured edgy handclaps in its rhythm track. Cole co-composed the no-nonsense lyrics, which, she told Jet, were "about the things you're trying to accomplish in life and dealing with somebody, a significant other, who comes in between that, especially with their ways. I want to be an example for young girls in following your goals and dreams and making it happen and checking him out later if you have to."
The album's third and fourth singles, "I Should Have Cheated" and "Love," put Cole at the top of the heap of emerging artists in the R&B field. "I Should Have Cheated" was a typically unsentimental Cole track in which she addressed a suspicious lover, telling him in no uncertain terms that if she was going to be constantly accused of unfaithfulness, she should have gone ahead and done something that would have justified the accusations. "That song has a lot of emotion, because I feel every girl and every guy can relate to that issue," she told Jet. The video for "Love" featured an appearance by male R&B heartthrob Tyrese. The song was drawn directly on Cole's own experiences: after being told by a romantic interest that he wasn't ready for a committed relationship, she saw him dining in a restaurant with an obviously steady girlfriend. Cole's reaction, she recalled on her Web site, was to pick up her pen: "I just wrote about it, it came out really quick. After I wrote the song, I went to the studio about 4 in the morning, and by 5 or 6 I was done with the song and that's what you hear."
Reviews for The Way It Is were positive: Janet Tzou of Entertainment Weekly, for example, wrote that "Cole's street-savvy Oakland, Calif., upbringing gives her vocals depth and her songs a genuine, lived-in feel." Both "I Should Have Cheated" and "Love" cracked the top ten in Billboard magazine's R&B singles chart, and the album was certified platinum for sales of one million copies in February of 2006. Estimated sales by the summer of 2006 were close to two million, an impressive performance for a debut by any standard, and especially rare in an era of declining CD sales.
Turned to TV
One factor that aided Cole's breakout was her distinctive visual image: she was, in the words of Malcolm Venable of the Norfolk Virginian Pilot, "a budding queen of the hair weave" who "dismisses the notion of inconspicuousness entirely, opting for mounds of electric Kool-Aid red locks, often with a blond stripe running smack dab in the center." Another was an attempt by the BET cable television channel to capitalize on Cole's down-to-earth appeal: she was featured in a six-episode reality-show series, also called The Way It Is, that focused not only on the experiences of a young star trying to make it in the music business but also on Cole's own troubled upbringing.
That program premiered in July of 2006 and was renewed for a second season in 2007, by which time Cole's future in the music business looked bright. She had a solo tour in the summer of 2006 under her belt, and was in demand for guest appearances on recordings by other artists including rapper/producer Jazze Pha. In 2007 Cole released a new single, "Let It Go," and eyes and ears in the music industry were awaiting her second release, Just Like You.
At a Glance …
Born on October 24, 1983 (some sources say 1981); raised in Oakland, CA, by foster mother, Yvonne Cole.
Career: Singer, 1995-.
Award: Vibe Next Award, 2005; ASCAP Award, for single "Love," 2007.
Addresses: Agent—c/o A&M Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Web—www.keyshiacole.com.
The Way It Is, A&M, 2005 (includes singles "Love" and "I Should Have Cheated").
Just Like You, forthcoming 2007.
The Way It Is, BET, 2006-.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 8, 2005, p. E1.
Entertainment Weekly, July 8, 2005, p. 69.
Fresno Bee, July 28, 2006, p. E6.
Houston Chronicle, January 31, 2006, p. 3.
Jet, March 6, 2006, p. 24.
New York Times, September 4, 2005, p. AR22.
People, August 1, 2005, p. 40.
Virginian Pilot (Norfolk), April 4, 2006, p. E2.
Keyshia Cole, www.keyshiacole.com (July 15, 2007).
"Keyshia Cole," All Music, www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&searchlink=KEYSHIA|COLE&sql=11:axfixq8aldhe~T0 (July 15, 2007).
Keyshia Cole has become, in the words of All Music Guide's Jason Birchmeier, "one of the more genuine urban songstresses out there in the mid-2000s." Battle-tested by an extremely painful childhood, Cole wrote much of her own music and drew on her own experiences in her songs. The aura of authenticity surrounding the rising star grew stronger as she shared some of her toughest problems in a cable television reality show called The Way It Is, an unusual decision in a business that often relied on carefully constructed images for female musicians, but a decision that vindicated Cole's determination and her smart management of her growing career.
Born on October 24, 1981, in Oakland, California, Keyshia (KEE-sha) Cole was one of seven children born to a crack-addicted mother who turned to prostitution to support herself and was later imprisoned for three years. Cole's mother said that her father was a white Italian-American named Sal. She was placed in foster care at age two and later adopted by her foster family. Cole's biological mother, Frankie, was an inconsistent presence in her life, but Cole kept in touch with siblings who remained within her biological family. Her older sister, Neffeteria, was raped by a home invader, and Cole believes that her nine-year-old cousin, Andre, was forced to watch. Andre later committed suicide, and her sister struggled with alcoholism.
Through it all, Cole kept her head above water. "When she was on drugs, my mother used to say to me, ‘You're gonna end up just like me,’" Cole recalled to Jeannine Amber of Essence. "But no, sorry, I'm not. I've always kept my dignity, my morals and my perspective because God always had my back. Even though it very well could have been that type of situation for me, I was raised in the church. My foster mother was a pastor, and I know God very well. He's like my father, and He just made sure I was always okay." Cole's musical career began at age six when she and a friend traded songs with Cole's foster brother.
When she was 12, her brother introduced her to Oakland rapper MC Hammer, then at the height of his pop crossover career. From then on, Cole showed a steely determination to make it in the music business. Besieging Hammer with phone messages, she landed a backup vocal slot on an MC Hammer track called "I'm Just a Kid." The recording was never released, but Cole, still in her early teens, turned it into other backup appearances on recordings by Messy Marv ("Nubian Queen") and other artists. Hammer arranged for her to sing at a Mother's Day party staged annually by Death Row label head Suge Knight, and Death Row rapper Tupac Shakur befriended the young singer and warned her, accurately, that she would be the target of sexual aggression by male music executives.
After Shakur's 1996 murder and Knight's associated imprisonment, Cole temporarily returned to Oakland and supported herself with jobs in a coffee shop and a hair salon. But she kept honing her agile soprano voice. With housing costs in the Bay Area skyrocketing, she moved in with an ex-boyfriend to save money. That arrangement came to an end when her roommate brought a new girlfriend home; an enraged Cole jumped into her car and drove straight to Los Angeles. Instead of letting her anger turn into self-destructiveness, she channeled it into creativity, heading immediately to a studio and working on a new song about the situation. The song later evolved into her hit "Love."
Things started to happen for Cole after the same demo landed on the desk of of Geffen label chairman Ron Fair, who signed her immediately. The label supported Cole consistently prior to the release of her debut album, The Way It Is, in the spring of 2005. She recorded a duet with female vocalist Eve for the soundtrack of the film Barbershop 2, and she toured as an opening act for superstar rapper Kanye West. West produced "I Changed My Mind," which became the leadoff single from The Way It Is.
"Love" and another song from The Way It Is, "I Should Have Cheated," defined Cole's down-to-earth, unsentimental image and powerful emotional appeal. In the latter song, Cole dealt with the issue of controlling jealousy, telling a man that since he was unjustly accusing her of being unfaithful, she might as well have gone ahead and done just that. Those songs propelled the album to the top spot on Billboard magazine's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and to number two on the general Billboard 200 chart. In an era of declining album sales due to Internet downloading of individual songs, the album was certified platinum for sales of one million copies, and continued to sell strongly through Cole's tour with another R&B superstar, R. Kelly. Reviewers compared Cole to a famed vocalist with a similar brand of street smarts—Mary J. Blige. "It's a strong comparison and I appreciate the compliment. I love Mary," Cole told Clarence Waldron of Jet. "But I think we are very different; we have our own sound and style."
That summer also saw the debut of the Cole reality show The Way It Is (retitled Keyshia Cole 2: The Way It Is for its second season). The show, which premiered in July of 2006 on the BET cable channel, traced Cole's activities as a growing force in the music business and delved honestly into her background. By the time the show began, Cole had been reunited with her biological mother and sister Neffeteria, both of whom were trying to stay clean. "Keyshia Cole is a popular series because it's the story of a woman who uses her success to heal her family," BET executive Reginald Hudlin told Waldron. "It's not contrived or fake, and everything doesn't resolve itself neatly … like real life." Cole saw herself as an example, telling Waldron that "I want people to understand that it doesn't matter the cards you are dealt in life. What matters is what you do with your cards when you get them. That's what counts."
Unlike many reality shows, Cole's rarely focused on the love life of its central figure. "I want to stay away from that question as much as possible. It's rough for me right now. It's best, I've learned, not to talk about it," she told Waldron. The second-season finale of the series attracted some three million viewers, the largest ever for a BET series program up to that point, and as of 2008 negotations were underway for a third season. By that time, Cole had a successful second album under her belt; the ballad-oriented Just Like You spawned several radio hits and matched the platinum-selling performance of its predecessor. Cole was given her own label, Imani Entertainment, within the giant Universal conglomerate, and she seemed ready to take her place in the long line of R&B divas who had healed themselves through the power of music.
For the Record …
Born October 24, 1981, in Oakland, CA; raised in a foster family.
Sang backup for MC Hammer and Messy Marv, early 1990s; signed to Geffen label, released debut album, The Way It Is, 2005; starred in television reality program The Way It Is (renamed Keyshia Cole 2: The Way It Is), 2005-; released album Just Like You, 2007; formed own label, Imani Entertainment.
Awards: Vibe Next Award, 2005; ASCAP Award, for single "Love," 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Imani Entertainment, Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
The Way It Is, Geffen, 2005.
Just Like You, Geffen, 2007.
Essence, October 2007, p. 178.
Houston Chronicle, January 31, 2006, p. 3.
Jet, March 6, 2006, p. 24; February 4, 2008, p. 58.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), December 21, 2007, p. T16.
"Keyshia Cole," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 24, 2008).
—James M. Manheim