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The death of Keri Hilson's Perfect World

Fresh off her appearance on Timbaland's massive hit "The Way I Are," Keri Hilson's debut album was originally slotted for a mid-2008 release. But three videos, massive publicity and multiple delays later, the album still shows no signs of coming out.

Though release-date bumps are common – especially in today's increasingly hostile sales environment – Hilson's story is a noteworthy one. Many believed she was poised to be Atlanta's next R&B superstar. She still could be, but further delays of her CD, In a Perfect World..., could irrevocably damage her career.

"They should have put her album out last year," says Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, executive editor of influential music magazine the Fader. "It just keeps getting pushed back and pushed back. It's possible she'll just get lost."

Hilson herself grows defensive when asked if she's concerned about her album's status.

"Absolutely not, absolutely not," she said in a late January phone interview. "I'm not worried. Timbaland is completely not worried. Polow's not worried. It's not a bad thing. It's not a bad thing."

Surely, she's reluctant to question the wisdom of her record label, Interscope, but there's little doubt that In a Perfect World... would have benefitted from a 2008 release.

With the blissed-out rap/R&B earworm "The Way I Are" – which Hilson co-wrote and which hit No. 1 in countries around the world in 2007 – Hilson became a media darling. She received a glowing Creative Loafing profile the following January and, that same month, appeared on the cover of the Fader. A creative talent with pin-up good looks, she was already known for fashioning hits for everyone from Ciara to Britney Spears with her Atlanta-based songwriting fraternity the Clutch.

Expectations, then, for In a Perfect World... were high. Co-executive produced by titans Timbaland and Polow da Don, it was to be the fourth album released by Timbaland's Mosley Music Group. The first three – Nelly Furtado's Loose, Timbaland's Shock Value, and OneRepublic's Dreaming Out Loud – were all big hits.

Hilson's first single, "Energy," was released in May, and by summer it was in regular rotation on MTV's channels. Two other videos – "Return the Favor" and "Turnin' Me On" – followed before the end of the year. She also appeared in the video for Ne-Yo's monster hit "Miss Independent," and in December joined Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Keyshia Cole and others on a tremendously popular arena tour that traveled all over the U.S. and hit Canada.

In October, Hilson said her profile was high enough to merit a release. Though her album had already been pushed back, she said the then-planned December release would be ideal. "This time I hope it's the final answer, December 9th," she said then. "I'm really hoping this is it, because the buzz has been great. The music is where it should be. So, I think it's the perfect time."

She now says the label is considering March 24, but insists the added delays have benefited the work. "It's allowed me time to record new songs, because a lot of my album leaked," she says. "It's made it an even stronger album." She neglects to offer any information on the new songs, however, asserting that discussing tracks in the media increases their likelihood of leaking.

Hilson compares her album to a baby, contending that neither should be born prematurely. "You want to make sure your baby is full-grown and healthy and ready to be birthed," she says. "It's all about timing."

But it seems likely Interscope has delayed In a Perfect World... for other reasons.

"I think it's been pushed back because people are scared," continues Escobedo Shepherd. "In the Internet era, they don't want to release things that aren't a sure thing. I think there's probably not enough money for what they may view as a gamble."

It's hard to see Hilson as a gamble, considering she's been ubiquitous in both hip-hop and R&B over the past year. But perhaps in an era where even top-selling artists like 50 Cent are routinely delayed, Hilson's constant bump-backs are not surprising.

Still, unlike 50, Hilson is not yet an established star, and without a CD it will be hard for her to pick up more steam. "Without putting out the album and without doing more videos," Escobedo Shepherd says, "there's not any other way to make her more high profile."

But Hilson's not giving up hope. She notes that "Turnin' Me On" is still getting plenty of spins. Further, as a strict Christian, she believes she will eventually be rewarded for her faith. "I feel like, with God's timing, my album will come out and be great," she says. "I just believe that if you work very hard and relentlessly that something will open up."

She adds that she's cautiously optimistic the March 24 release date will stick. "I think there's no better time than now," she says. Hopefully that's the case, but one can't help feeling that Hilson and her fans are stuck in a scene from Groundhog's Day.

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