There's two sides to every story and the R&B siren knows both of them.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's August/September 2009 issue.
Maybe Keri Hilson should have adopted a stage name before she became a pop star. It’s not that her birth name doesn’t befit an R&B diva (it’s better than, say, “Tweet”), it’s just that there’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing at work. The gorgeous 26-year-old nestled in the lounge in New York’s Hudson Hotel couldn’t possibly be the same chick on TV in tights and stilettos, trading verses and personal time with Lil Wayne and Kanye. The one right now is streetwear wifey supreme: a Canal Street T-shirt paired with jeans and Dunks. Hates getting her nails done, never kisses and tells. In-person Keri is just as appealing as video Keri…so why the dichotomy?
Because, simply put, she recognizes game. At 14, when most of her peers were playing dress-up in local talent shows, Ms. Hilson had a record deal (with the defunct girl group D’Signe). By the time she entered college, she had writing credits on major-label records, and would eventually—along with her songwriting crew, The Clutch—pen hits for Britney Spears (“Radar”), Ciara (“Like a Boy”), and Omarion (“Ice Box”). So yeah, with more than a decade in the game, not only does she know exactly what pop stars are supposed to look like, she knows exactly how they’re supposed to sound.
That’s why she enlisted mentors Polow Da Don and Timbaland for her debut album, In a Perfect World… It’s also why she blessed us with a glimpse of her perfect legs—she has no problem putting on for the camera, as long as it’s in a professional setting. (But there won’t be any private photos leaking. No shots!). And it’s why we sat down with her to ask the reason it’s still trickin’ if you got it, what she does at night, and why Kanye got to slap her ass on stage. With stunts like that, we don’t care what she calls herself.
My very first check was for $25,000. My family was like, 'What the hell is this?'
How do you feel about your album and the way people are receiving it? It’s tough out here right now.
It’s doing very well. Especially given this industry—even though the business is hurting, the album is still achieving its projections. I’m proud of the album, but you can never expect how the world will receive you or your music.
So far, your biggest hits have been performed by other artists—Britney Spears, Omarion. Does that fact bother you at all?
No, it’s money in the bank. That’s my means of living. There’s two sides of me, and neither takes preference. One is just a dream that I fought long and hard for. Songwriting was my Plan B. My whole life, I’ve fought to just do this. I didn’t know that I’d be able to take off as far, or as fast, as I did, but I knew I had a talent and that I should pursue it, because there’s money in it. When I wasn’t able to perform, and lost the record deal, I took the path of Plan B, and now I love them equally. I can’t have one without the other. Even at my biggest, I want to be writing for other artists. Even at my peak—the highest I can be as an artist—I always want to be keeping my creative juices flowing, keeping money in the bank, putting my intellectual property out there.
Your singles, “Energy” and “Turnin Me On,” are remarkably different from each other.
I was very wary of that. Years ago, I wanted to be like the girl Ne-Yo. You know, with the mid-tempo ballads—I come from the Babyface era. But that’s not trendy, that’s not hip-hop. These days, you have to play it a different way. “Turnin Me On” did things that “Energy” could not have done in this day and time.
You’re saying it wasn’t right for the market?
Songs like “Energy” take a lot longer [to build up buzz]. Unfortunately, labels like their returns quickly. They believe in “right now,” in tempos and things that can move up the charts quickly.
So what type of artist do you want to become?
If you look at my iTunes, there’s a lot of R&B and a lot less hip-hop. Even though I love it! I’m born and raised in Georgia, so I have a lot of appreciation for hip-hop, but I want to be able to show the emotional side of me.
Kanye or Wayne would never touch my ass offstage, I’ll tell you that much.
But you grew up on soul.me: want or wanted?
My dad used to sing in a quartet. He loved everything: adult contemporary, anything smooth. He’d listen to the quartets. My musical influences, without a doubt, come from my dad. No one really pursued music, though. I’m the first. I’m the black sheep. I did go to college—I had to. But I didn’t take business or political science or anything.
How long were you there for?
Three years, up to my junior year. Emory University. Theater.
That seems like it suits you.
Yeah, it’s creative, and it was something I grew up doing, that I figured I was as good as anyone else at.
Were you writing at the time for people?
Oh, yeah. I was writing right after high school. When I graduated is when I started placing my credits.
Wow, so you were in college, cashing checks?
My very first check was for Ruben Studdard’s first album, like $25,000. And my family was like, “What the hell is this? This is what you’ve been doing? Who the hell brings home a check like this?” They’re thinking $2,500 here and there, whatever. It was crazy.
Did you blow it?
No! I’m very frugal. Very.
What’s the last thing you bought?
Some stuff from Wal-Mart for the bus, I guess.
You grew up fairly well-off, right?
Yeah, pretty well-off. Middle-class. All-black neighborhood.
Most R&B singers come into the game like, “Yeah, I’m hood.” Like, “I’m representing all the black women in the hood who have a story to tell.” You don’t exactly embody that.
I do! Because I was in, and of, and around it. I lived in Decatur, Georgia. You’re not far from the hood anywhere in Decatur, Georgia. My parents placed a huge importance on education, though, and that’s where I come from. I mean, my parents’ parents and their parents, they’re not rich by any means. My parents worked very hard and they instilled that in us. Even though we were around the hood, we didn’t go to school in the hood. They shipped us off for an hour to get to school every day. It was just that important for us to maintain the life that they had created.
But it feels like there is a different overall message you’re trying to put forth.
I wanted to do an album that expressed a woman’s true thoughts and true feelings about certain situations that we go through. I thought that was missing—the truth part. People do songs that paint themselves as perfect. Like they don’t do this or that: “No, you can’t say this to me or do this to me.” It’s more like storytelling for some people as opposed to exposing who they are, and allowing people to relate to them. That’s what I wanted to accomplish—I wanted to touch people in ways that I was touched. I wanted it to be relatable.
I don’t want to sit here and talk about your bank account. What’s important is that you have goals.
Did that desire to be relatable as an artist come from you personally?
Absolutely. I wrote the majority of the album. There were two songs that I had nothing to do with, on the writing end. They’re “Change Me” and “Energy.” Really, I just won’t sing a song if I don’t feel that way.
Really? What about the song with Keyshia Cole (“Get Your Money Up”)?
Now, there are things about that song that represent the gold-digger, the Atlanta chick mentality. Or at least the perception that people have of Atlanta girls—and in some ways, it’s true.
That’s not particular to Atlanta girls, that’s the mainstream.
Yeah, OK. Women today.
Is that Keri Hilson?
Not at all. I’m closer to the girl on [Timbaland’s] “The Way I Are.” You don’t have to buy me drinks or bottles, don’t flaunt—take your swag off. We can go Dutch. I’m more into a man’s intellect, more into a guy who can enlighten me. I don’t want to sit here and talk about your bank account. What’s important is that you have goals, and you’re mobile.
Yes! Upwardly would be status. Forward is just driven, motivated. I know lots of good girls who think like me. Unfortunately, I think it’s hard for men to change the way they think because there are so many women who... [Laughs.] The number one reason men acquire money is for women. Or to acquire things to get them more women.
There’s a line on “Get Your Money Up”: “Diamonds a girl’s best friend, if you can provide them/I might even act a fool while you’re hittin’ it…”
If we’re in a relationship and you buy me a gift, I’ll acknowledge it! There’s a certain thing in a woman—we like gifts—but don’t think I’m the kind of woman that places the importance on that. It’s not the foundation.
You believe it’s still trickin’ if you have it.
[Laughs.] Sure. Yeah, I believe it’s still trickin’ if you have it. There’s no sane way to answer that!
We haven’t seen you as much as your contemporaries on blogs and gossip sites.
Good. Good. I’m not camera-hungry. That was never part of my dream, to be overexposed. I’d much rather be mysterious.
How mysterious can you be if you do a video blog or shows like 106 & Park?
That’s different! That’s working. I’m talking about the extracurricular.
Like going out to clubs.
I go out when I’m working. If I’m paid to go there, I’m there. I go out very rarely.
So what’s a down night like?
A down night is indoors, when no one knows where I’m at. A down night is dinner or a movie. Either at the house or at a chill spot, not the paparazzi places. I think to a certain extent you have to be seen these days. You have to distinguish between what’s going to help you and what you’re doing because of the pride or the addiction to fame. Certain events I have to go to. When you see me, I’m supposed to be there. I’m not there just to be on the red carpet.
I don’t want to be oversexed! I don’t want to sell sex, I want to sell music.
What was up with your little Twitter from our photo shoot? [Ed.—“COMPLEX mag cover shoot! Not quite AS sexy as you’ve all been seeing from others (hehe)...but sexy nonetheless. My way!”]
Y’all misinterpreted that! I wasn’t talking about your magazine. I wasn’t dissing you guys. I was talking about other artists being butt-ass naked.
That seems to be pressing on your mind, what your contemporaries are doing and wearing...or not wearing.
Yeah! I don’t want to be oversexed! I don’t want to sell sex, I want to sell music. I want to inspire others, I don’t want to be one of those people who’s always throwing their body at the masses. What good does that do? Besides sell records. Men don’t buy records, anyway. These pictures are Photoshopped, they’re airbrushed. If anything, it’s just the opposite for me, where women are my fans.
I disagree with that. Men do buy albums.
You’re an exception. You’re not the rule. On the whole, women buy records; for men, though, they do the barbershop thing, bootleg, or download, or whatever.
So we’re never going to see a Keri Hilson sex tape, then?
Or Playboy, or any of that. Nah. If I do something naked, it’ll be for Allure’s skin-cancer benefit auction or something like that—it would be to help some cause other than my record sales.
What was Keri Hilson’s first reaction when scandalous photos were leaked of certain “other artists”?
My first reaction was “Thank God I never did that.” I never let anybody take any naked pictures of me, so there would be none. I was always one of those over-paranoid people, convinced that someday that I would be living the dream, so as early as middle or high school I wouldn’t do certain things, just in case.
Like what? What can you do at 13?
I was in the industry as early as 12. I was just always trying not to do certain things so I wouldn’t embarrass myself later. I was very careful. The most you’ll ever find of me is a picture in little boy shorts or a bathing suit, which is normal.
There was some talk about you and other rappers…Kanye, Lil Wayne.
Oh, like dating?
Haven’t both of them touched your ass onstage before?
Yeah, they have. Onstage. Onstage. What am I there to do? Entertain. Onstage, we’re entertainers. Onstage, a married man is still an entertainer. It means he’s an entertainer first when he’s onstage. Offstage? Very respectful. They would never touch my ass offstage, I’ll tell you that much.
WATCH KERI'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Mariel Haenn. (HAIR) Keith Campbell for Belegenza/Epiphany Artist Group. (MAKEUP) Javier Romero for M.A.C. Cosmetics. (MANICURE) Naomi Yasuda. COVER IMAGE, FIRST IMAGE, FIFTH, SEVENTH, AND NINTH IMAGES: Bra by La Perla / bathing suit by American Apparel / shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti for Balmain / sunglasses by Ksubi. SECOND, EIGHTH, AND TENTH IMAGES: Sunglasses by Badgley Mischka / necklace by Costume National / bra by La Perla / leggings by Alexander McQueen / shoes by Christian Louboutin. THIRD AND SIXTH IMAGES: Earrings by Lia Sophia / bathing suit by Alexander McQueen / bra by La Perla. FOURTH AND ELEVENTH IMAGES: Bathing suit by La Perla / shoes by Paule Ka.