"The Way I Are" -- a song from hip-hop producer Timbaland's Timbaland Presents Shock Value that topped the Billboard singles chart last year -- is an amazing cultural marker.
On the surface, "The Way I Are" is a better-than-average R&B dance track co-produced by Timbaland and Danjahandz. But Keri Hilson's fluttery, birdlike vocals, coupled with the kinetic, synth-heavy techno sounds, makes it stand out. As she sings the chorus, and the otherworldly effects flutter around her, it sounds as if she's reinvigorating girl-group R&B – a black pop tradition that stretches back to the Supremes – with something new.
As a result, the mix of electronics and soul on "The Way I Are" barely resembles traditional R&B. "Nothing about that song is R&B to me," says the Atlanta native, calling from Los Angeles, where she's working on her upcoming debut album In a Perfect World (Mosley Music Group/Interscope). But she admits that her contributions to Shock Value, including album tracks such as "Miscommunication" and "Scream," are '80s-inspired. "They feel throwback, but the soul is on top of that."
Hilson is part of the "'80s babies" movement, a popular term among young blacks that seemingly condenses numerous urban trends such as "Generation X" did for young whites born in the '70s. It celebrates fluorescent-colored and throwback fashions such as spandex to synth-based electronic sounds and garish pop artists such as Madonna, George Michael and Journey.
The best part of the "'80s babies" trend, however, is how black youth have become more open to multilayered styles of expression than in decades past. In 2007, that vive le difference led to a handful of genre-blurring hits. There was P. Diddy and Keyshia Cole's "Last Night," where the duo seemingly mimicked Yarbrough & Peoples' synth-funk classic "Don't Stop the Music"; Kanye West's "Stronger," which found inspiration in the crushed electronics of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger"; and "The Way I Are."
"Timbaland has really brought back the '80s almost single-handedly," 25-year-old Hilson claims. "Well, he and Kanye." She professes her love for Salt-N-Pepa, Lisa Lisa, MC Lyte and Blondie.
Hilson, who grew up in Decatur as the daughter of a real-estate mogul, is a child of Atlanta's influential and sometimes-insular urban-music industry. As a teenager, she sang in two R&B groups, By Design (which landed a brief development deal with Elektra) and Pretty Toni. Her songs for the latter group drew the attention of songwriter/producer Anthony Dent, whose credits include Kelly Price's "Friend of Mine" and Destiny's Child "Survivor."
At 18, Hilson became Dent's protégé, and wrote lyrics for R&B acts such as 112 and Kelly Rowland. While she worked in recording studios around the city, Hilson often ran into Polow da Don, who was then an up-and-coming producer; he broke out in 2006 with the Pussycat Dolls' "Buttons." Eventually, Polow introduced Hilson to Timbaland. Currently, Hilson is signed to both men's production companies, Polow da Don's Zone 4 and Timbaland's Mosely Music Group.
Before her star-making appearance on Timbaland's "The Way I Are," Hilson struggled to transcend her successful but mostly invisible role as a songwriter. In 2005 she formed the Clutch with four young Atlanta songwriters, Ezekiel Lewis, Balewa Muhammad, Patrick "J. Que" Smith and Candace Nelson. Collaborating together on projects for Britney Spears ("Gimme More") and Omarion ("Icebox"), they aim to create a brand name that will garner more industry acclaim.
"It's such a producer-driven game, and we want to gain that respect for songwriters so we're not in the shadows anymore," Hilson says. She explains that songwriting is more than just writing a catchy hook in 15 minutes. "When you're writing a song, yeah, it may take 15 minutes for the initial concept, but you still have to sit down and produce the lyric. You still have to arrange the vocals, and you still have to sit with the engineer and mix [the vocal track]."
On paper, Hilson's lyrics for "The Way I Are" look like lusty teenage poetry. One section reads, "Baby it's alright, you ain't got to flaunt for me/Don't you know, you can still touch my love, it's free."
But when she sings them on Timbaland's track, they brilliantly underscore the emotional impact of his music. The lyrical canard about love is just a metaphor for how light-headed and romantic the music makes her feel. It makes for effective pop songwriting by using perfectly simple words to create a story or feeling that resonates with everyone. "Words come easily to those who have that gift," Hilson says.
In recent years other Atlanta writers and producers have used their behind-the-scenes success to launch a center-stage career, including Bryan Michael-Cox, Johnta Austin and Sean Garrett. But with the possible exception of Terius "the Dream" Nash and his excellent 2007 debut Love/Hate, Hilson may be the first to achieve a pop explosion as big as her clients.
Now in the studio with Timbaland, Polow da Don and Danjahandz, Hilson hopes to create a defining sound with In a Perfect World. "My album is definitely R&B, because it's a lot more soulful," she says. But when asked if it will sound like "The Way I Are" – or more importantly, if it will match that song's cultural zeitgeist – she pauses and gives another answer.
"It's hard for me to describe my sound. It's just refreshing. It's a breath of fresh air, the way Timbaland's music has been," she says. "You might call [In a Perfect World] an R&B album, but to me, it's just a mix of everything that's dope."
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