Pretty Girl Rocks

Chart-topping Keri Hilson has built a career on breaking the rules

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.

She wore a promise ring on one hand and held a fruity drink in the other, her hair in braids, her skin tanned to a deep caramel from hours and hours out in the Cancún sun with her best friends. This was their senior trip, full of swimming and dance contests and shots. Hilson had planned it all as vice president of the class of 2000 at Tucker High.

This was a much-needed break for Hilson, a basketball player, swimmer, and cheerleader who spent her weekends and after-school hours training at McIntyre’s Artist Development Center, a boot camp for aspiring stars that has hosted the likes of Usher, T.I., Ciara, Cody Simpson, and Pink, as well as Kandi Burruss of Real Housewives. As part of a three-person girl group called By D’Sign, Hilson ran four miles and did more physical training, vocal coaching, and choreography every day until she crashed on a couch or a mattress on the floor of an office.

“She had a charisma, a swagger,” McIntyre recalls. “Everything that Keri had wasn’t given to her. She knew that if you act like you belong there, people will respect you so you can stay there.”

As long as she kept her grades up, Hilson’s parents—her mom owns a Decatur daycare center and her dad is a property developer—would allow her to take on all these activities. And of course, go on the trip to Cancún.

On the third day of the trip, frantic calls came in to the hotel’s front desk. Call home, Keri, they pleaded. She was annoyed. When she finally called back, she got the news: By D’Sign was being signed to Elek­tra Records, and she needed to catch the next flight to New York.

Hilson was excited, but also a little bit sad, because it meant she would miss the rest of her trip and say goodbye to the last vestiges of her normal life.

“I couldn’t just have these seven days?” Hilson sighs, still thinking about what she missed. “I guess I just had to accept that and seize the opportunity.”

That summer Hilson and her bandmates performed in New York City, wearing matching, shiny-pink tank tops and tight, zebra-striped pants and wailing out a three-part rendition of “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” by Deborah Cox.

“It was the happiest summer of my life,” Hilson says.

But as fall arrived and Hilson began her freshman year at Emory University, she was jealous of students who got the full college experience. So she walked away from By D’Sign and the record contract. She was sure she’d get another chance at fame.

When Hilson writes a song, she doesn’t use clefs and quarter notes; she can’t read sheet music. Typically a producer gives her a track, which includes the beats and the instrumentals, and she writes the lyrics and records herself singing the melody and vocal backgrounds.

Her dorm room at Emory became her songwriting laboratory. For all her talk of wanting a regular college experience, she didn’t pledge a sorority or play intramural basketball. She never fully left the music industry, instead balancing songwriting with her studies in theater.

Hilson became the in-house songwriter for local producer Anthony Dent, who had cowritten and produced one of Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits, “Survivor.” He asked Hilson to lead and write the songs for a new girl group, Pretty Toni, which she describes as the Spice Girls with an edge.

Hilson liked the girls in Pretty Toni, but she felt they weren’t talented enough, and she resented them for not working as hard. She was going to school, practicing with the group, writing music, and running on two hours of sleep a day.

“With Keri being so disciplined, she wants discipline around her,” McIntyre says. “It was just a pathway to other things.”

So she left Pretty Toni and continued collecting more song credits on records for artists like Kelly Rowland, Chris Brown, Ciara, and Ruben Studdard. As a founding member of the songwriting collective known as the Clutch, she helped write songs like Mary J. Blige’s “Take Me as I Am.” She linked up with producer Jamal Fincher Jones, also known as Polow da Don.

“Those royalties were nice to me,” she says of that time, eight years ago. “For a young girl, I was ballin’.”

After ditching two girl groups, Hilson realized that if she was going to sing, she only wanted to do it as a solo artist. She was certain she would be lucky again and get another shot at stardom.

The phone rang at 9 a.m., just two or three hours after Hilson had fallen asleep. Who in the . . . ?

“Yo, Tim’s comin’ to town, and he wants to meet with you,” Polow said.

Hilson could barely breathe. “Tim” was Timbaland, the rapper, beatboxer, and megaproducer behind drum- and clap-heavy hits from Justin Timberlake, Lil’ Kim, OneRepublic, Madonna, and Nelly Furtado. And he was Hilson’s absolute favorite.

She hadn’t been waiting for his call. But at twenty-two, she wasn’t content being just a songwriter. She wanted to perform, and Timbaland wanted to hear her sing. Luckily she was ready. In a studio she had set up on the second floor of her Emory-area house, Hilson had recorded herself singing some of the songs she sold to other artists. She ran upstairs, burned a CD, slapped a label on it, and rushed to meet Timbaland in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead.

“He’s like,” and here she affects his deep bass voice, “‘Yo, there’s something about you that reminds me of Aaliyah.’”

Aaliyah, the young R&B singer and Timbaland prodigy who died in a plane crash in 2001, had a vocal style that was similar to Hilson’s: not a showy powerhouse belt like Christina Aguilera, but a rich and easygoing alto that effortlessly flitted into a clear songbird soprano.

At the end of their four-hour meeting, Timbaland asked Hilson to come to Miami to record with him for a couple of days. Thankfully she’s not a light packer, because she stayed for a month, then commuted between Atlanta and Miami for about a year. Under the guidance of Timbaland and Polow, Hilson—the singer—became the subject of a bidding war that Interscope Records won.

“[Timbaland] had a dry spell after the death of Aaliyah, when it was hard to get back. He gained all this weight, his energy was not right,” Hilson says. “He tells me he credits me for his revival in music, that I was one of the ones that inspired him. That right there—I could’ve died the day he said that.”

Together they recorded the track “The Way I Are” for Timbaland’s album, Shock Value. The song hit number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 in August 2007, number one on the Billboard pop charts in September 2007, and number two on the French charts that November.

From there Timbaland helped Hilson put together her 2009 solo debut, In a Perfect World. He also contributed to her 2010 follow-up record, No Boys Allowed. Polow did too, and was largely responsible for the controversial single and video for “The Way You Love Me.”

Hilson is wearing a black leather bikini, writhing and booty-popping inside what looks like a humid bank. She licks her lips, teeth, fingers, and a vault door in front of the often crotch-level camera.

Raw sexuality is nothing new for women in music, and “The Way You Love Me,” as found on iTunes, is tame enough. In it, Hilson sings that she’s “got the kinda lovin’ that’ll keep you off the streets,” and says “it’s the way you thug me.” The controversy came when an earlier, dirtier version of the lyrics was overdubbed on the video, switching out “lovin’” for a feline reference to her private parts and “thug me” to, well, you know.

Hilson says she wouldn’t make that kind of record today.

“Girls are chasing what they see. Unfortunately the lack of responsibility in music . . . I was guilty of that before . . . and TV . . . yes, we’re adults, but I do know that kids have the means to click and see that,” she says.

Hilson is less apologetic about “One Night Stand,” the duet she recorded with Chris Brown that was released a year after his arrest for beating girlfriend Rihanna.

“I didn’t want to be one of those women who is so unforgiving,” Hilson told the Associated Press in a 2010 interview. “I don’t condone what he did. But I also believe in second chances.”

This move was criticized on blogs and Twitter, where, Hilson says, “the hate is daily.” One tweet imagined her drinking cyanide after learning that Beyoncé—whom Hilson allegedly dissed in a remix track—earned $40 million after taking a year off. Recently Hilson took to Twitter to deny rumors that she was pregnant with singer Trey Songz’s baby.

“They don’t sleep, “ she says of the haters. “However, I ain’t cuttin’ my Twitter off, because the love I get far outweighs the hate I get.”

Indeed, Hilson’s fans have been tweeting her since the release of No Boys Allowed, begging her to come back. But she needed a break from always working and worrying about the next track, the next release date, the next sales figures. She went to services at Buckhead Church and spent time with her parents in Lithonia and her four siblings around Atlanta. She traveled and did charity work to benefit HIV/AIDS research, Haiti, and orphans in Ivory Coast. And she didn’t care when critics said she was stupid to step away.

“It’s dangerous,” says McIntyre, the artist coach. “You’re taking the chance that your demographic from two years ago isn’t there anymore. She’s going to have to introduce herself to a new demographic and reintroduce herself to her fans.”

Hilson scoffs at the idea. As always, she isn’t worried, and she isn’t rushing. The new album could come out in one year, or three years. And she has faith the public will be ready for it.

So now she’s back in the studio, wearing a houndstooth fedora to hide her bad hair day, preparing to record more vocals for the song she and Rock City wrote and recorded at 3 a.m. She’s exhausted, but then the engineer cues up the song, and she bobs her head to a bass line that’s shaking the couch she’s sitting on. She stands up, throws her arms out wide, closes her eyes, and mouths along with the lyrics.

As the song fades out, she smiles, then heads into the booth.

“Things are lining up,” she says, pulling on her headphones. “They always do.”