When Nelly Met Kelly

A St. Louis rapper helps a hometown girl step out of the shadow of a multiplatinum band

Two minutes. One hundred and twenty seconds. That's all you're gonna get if you're a reporter and you want to talk to Kelly Rowland, one-third of the Houston rap/pop supertroika Destiny's Child. Rowland showed up one rainy Saturday afternoon at the Meyer Park Wherehouse Music store to sign autographs, schmooze fans and promote her solo album, Simply Deep.

For a journalist, it's frustrating to try to elicit meaningful sound bites out of somebody in the time it takes to nuke a burrito. But at least Rowland isn't one of those tight-lipped subjects. She wants to help you out, to talk about her album -- even what she says sounds a tad rehearsed. "Simply Deep was a challenge for Kelly Rowland, and I did that creatively and vocally," Rowland says, briefly referring to herself in the third person. "I was very nervous when I first got into the studio, but I came through with flying colors because of my family and, of course, my sisters in Destiny's Child, Beyoncé [Knowles] and Michelle [Williams]. There were days in the studio where I would run out, like, 'I'm frustrated! I don't wanna do this!' And they would calm me and tell me that everything was gonna be okay, that I could get through the songs. I got through it because of them."

It seems like Rowland always ends up coming back to this particular location when it's time to show her local fans some love. Just over three years ago, back when Destiny's Child was a quartet, Rowland was at this store promoting the group's second album, The Writing's On the Wall(see "Girls to Women," by Craig D. Lindsey, August 19, 1999). That was before she and her sisters became megastars, and before the acrimonious departures of LaTavia Roberson, LeToya Luckett and later Farrah Franklin. Now, she's all alone, a newly minted solo star, and she has Nelly to thank for that.

Who woulda thunk Rowland would beat Beyoncé to the punch?
Who woulda thunk Rowland would beat Beyoncé to the punch?

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Early in the year, the St. Louis rapper requested Rowland's vocal services on "Dilemma," a track off his second album, Nellyville. When the song recently dropped as a single, it hit the top of the Billboardsingles charts. "Actually, what happened was Nelly called my manager and the label, and he asked me to be on the song," she explains. "And next thing you know, I was in the studio recording the song and--"

"The No. 1 record in America!" someone yells out.

Rowland laughs." That's right. That's right! Bless him. The perfect way to start an album."

On that slick love song, Rowland sings a hook from Patti LaBelle's "Love, Need and Want You." Given the amazing voice of the song's originator, it's understandable that Rowland was a little leery. "I was actually walking on eggshells after I recorded the song," she says. "I was like, 'Okay, I just hope Patti likes the song.' She heard it, and when I saw her at the video shoot, she said, 'Baby, you sung the hell out of my song!' And I was like, 'Really? You really think so?' She said, 'Yes, baby, you did a great job.' And I was just so happy that she thought so, and that made me feel better."

If you told somebody a year ago that it was Rowland who'd be the Destiny's Child member soaking up solo success, that person probably would have asked, "Which one is Kelly again?" It seemed predestined that the higher- profile Beyoncé would be the first to break out and release a solo album. After all, she was always the one in the middle of the group's photos, she sang lead a lot of the time, and she had already made her big-screen debut (as Foxxy Cleopatra in Goldmember).

"That's what they get for thinking they know," says a laughing Matthew Knowles. "Only I know!" And the spooky thing is, maybe Beyoncé's old man -- manager of all three ladies and CEO of their Music World label -- is the only one who knows what's going to happen with Destiny's Child.

Nobody would've suspected that Beyoncé would be the last out the gate with a solo career, but that has been the case. Michelle Williams was the first to hit the solo spotlight; her gospel album, Heart to Yours, was released in April. And now Rowland has come into her own with Deep. Actually, as both Knowles and Rowland acknowledge, Beyoncé's album was supposed to be out by now, but she's become too busy with her budding film career to put the finishing touches on it. (Don't worry, Beyoncé fans: Her album will be out early next year.)

"With the success of 'Dilemma' with Nelly, it only made sense to move up Kelly's record," says Knowles. "Kelly did an exceptional job in making this record and being the artist that she could be. She stepped up, and that's what each one of these solo projects is gonna do."

So is Rowland's album step-up material? Yes and no. Some songs are quite infatuating, but others make you wonder just what she was going for. Obviously, Rowland was trying to cover the pop gamut, and she admits as much. "It's actually a mixture of all my musical influences, from hip-hop to rock to R&B and, of course, Sade," she says. "I think she's in a category all of her own, and it makes her Simply Deep."

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