This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.
Keri Hilson’s voice sounds sore, like a smoker (she’s not), or an exhausted cheerleader (she was), or someone who went to bed at seven this morning (she did). Still, today she doesn’t seem concerned about protecting her instrument prior to recording “Friend,” a midtempo R&B track for her new album, the first since 2010, and one that she doesn’t appear to be in a rush to release. She’ll finish it when she finishes it, thankyouverymuch.
Despite the light rasp, she isn’t sipping hot tea or slugging honey. She isn’t doing elaborate vocal warm-ups. Moments before she goes into the booth at Zac Audio’s Stonehenge Recording in Atlanta, Hilson scarfs down Korean chicken and fish tacos from OMG Taco in Little Five Points. They’re dripping with garlicky mayonnaise.
“I’m very saucy,” she coos.
Hilson selected tacos for lunch after being told Chick-fil-A would probably be a bad idea, given the anticipated crowds on the day of the “kiss-in” protest after the company’s president said gay marriage would invite God’s judgment on our nation.
Timothy Thomas, half of the songwriting duo Rock City, looks up from his laptop. “Are they saying gays can’t buy chicken?”
“No, no, no,” Sam Thomas, the engineer, says.
Hilson shakes her head. “You can’t fight for one belief and then fight against another. Let them believe what they want to believe and you believe what you want to believe.”
She thinks for a beat.
“Even if I was gay and married, I would still be eating their chicken. I’m glad I had it yesterday.”
“Chick-fil-A is the shit,” Timothy Thomas agrees.
Hilson laughs. “Even if they said, ‘We hate black people with hazel eyes. And Keri Hilson,’ I would still eat at Chick-fil-A.”
Hilson often talks and tweets (@KeriHilson—2.5 million followers and counting) like this, riffing, without a filter or a carefully managed message or an eye on how an off-the-cuff comment might hurt her later. This freewheeling manner is, in some ways, the approach she’s taken to her fifteen-year career as a singer and songwriter in R&B and hip-hop. She hasn’t plotted a conventional path to success. She doesn’t have the typical star’s origin narrative. She never printed off stacks of demos and begged producers to listen. She didn’t post homemade videos on YouTube, hoping to be discovered. She didn’t camp out in front of superproducer Tim “Timbaland” Mosley’s Miami mansion in order to get him to work with her.
What she did do was write songs in her Decatur bedroom, sing in her church choir, perform for assemblies and graduations at Tucker High School, and be lucky enough to grow up during a seminal time for R&B—when a teenager from College Park named Monica could get signed as a major artist—and for Atlanta as a hip-hop hothouse. At the age of fourteen, Hilson joined a girl group that, three years later, got a record deal. She became a professional songwriter at seventeen, earning her first five-figure check for penning the only English-language song on a Japanese pop singer’s album. She released her first solo album in 2009 and her second in 2010. Two years ago, in the pantheon of pop stars, Keri Hilson wasn’t a Rihanna, but she was up there with Brandy and Ciara.
Then she just stopped. She wanted to rest and had faith that taking a break wouldn’t kill her career.
“I’m always sure something else will fall into my lap,” she says.
That’s blasphemous, magical thinking in an industry that virtually never grants second and third chances, where pliability and obedience are rewarded and iconoclasts are often punished.
Sure, she’s special, with talent, determination, and a sexy tomboy-in-Louboutins persona that pushed her singles into platinum territory and garnered her two Grammy nominations, including a Best New Artist bid in 2010. (She lost to fellow Georgians the Zac Brown Band.)
“But there’s somebody working at Waffle House right now who can sing just as good as Whitney Houston,” says Marvin L. McIntyre, who, as founder of Marvelous Enterprises’ Artist Development Center in Atlanta, has known Hilson since she was fourteen. “If they never get the opportunity, they’ll never get the chance to fulfill their dreams. When the opportunity comes, it’s all based on how prepared you are.”
Being open to serendipity—that’s the key for Hilson. Whether it’s in songwriting or singing, she’s always been ready for opportunities. And as luck would have it, they’ve come.
“I’m a relentless optimist, a Sagittarius,” she says.
Time may wait for no man, but it seems to have waited for Hilson. The question, as she records the tracks for her new album, is whether she pressed her luck too hard this time, and waited too long to come back.