Kelly Rowland’s glass ceiling: When will the former Destiny’s Child finally have her day in the U.S.?
Some girls have all the luck, and in the case of Destiny’s Child, that girl would be Beyoncé Knowles. Though Destiny’s Child was technically a group effort, for three of its four studio albums, Beyoncé was the de facto leader and main attraction. From sometime around “Say My Name” on, all eyes were on her.
Since the trio disbanded in 2006, she’s the one who has gone on to solo superstardom, with Grammy Awards, multi-platinum albums, a successful acting career and a seemingly rock-solid marriage to rapper Jay-Z. She’s an icon in the making, a modern-day Diana Ross, and the only woman in pop with the commercial clout to challenge Lady Gaga.
Michelle Williams, always the quiet Child, has maintained a considerably and characteristically lower profile since 2006. She’s appeared on Broadway, becoming the first black woman to portray Roxie Hart in Chicago last February, after playing the same role on London’s West End. Her recording career has focused mainly on gospel music, a genre where gold, platinum and No. 1 hits are icing. If you praise the Lord and trust in Him, presumably, He will give you all the compensation you need.
Then there’s Kelly Rowland, who must have one of the most lopsided careers in pop. Like Beyoncé, she’s beautiful, charismatic and talented, an international star — but unlike her former group mate, one whose success in her native country so far has been frustratingly limited. Her solo career started off promisingly — more so, in fact, than Beyoncé’s, whose 2002 first solo effort, “Work It Out” from the Austin Powers in Goldmember soundtrack, failed to chart in the U.S. That same year, “Dilemma,” Rowland’s duet with Nelly topped charts worldwide and spent 10 weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. She’s since scored four Top 5 UK singles as a headliner — plus three other Top 20s — none of which has gone higher than No. 27 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and only three of which have charted at all there.
Last year, Rowland returned to No. 1 in the UK with “When Love Takes Over,” a collaboration with French DJ/producer David Guetta. To this day, it packs dancefloors in clubs all over Buenos Aires, but it never rose above No. 76 on the Hot 100. In stark comparison, Guetta’s follow-up single, “Sexy Bitch,” featuring Akon, went all the way to No. 5.
Two weeks ago, Rowland’s new single, “Commander,” credited to “Kelly Rowland featuring David Guetta” and the first single from her upcoming self-titled third solo album (which is due in September, and as self-titled albums well into an artist’s career usually do, must mean she means business), entered the UK singles chart at No. 17. Its respectable-but-not-quite-grand entrance was below comeback tracks from Kylie Minogue and Robyn, which debuted at Nos. 4 and 8, respectively, before dropping in week two. This week, “Commander” climbs to No. 13.
It will no doubt enter the UK Top 10 in due course, but I’m not expecting to see it scale the upper reaches of the Hot 100 anytime soon. Rowland’s commercial problem in the U.S. has nothing to do with the quality of her music, though “Commander” is not a favorite of mine. (The vocals of a singer as skilled as Rowland do not deserve to be so over-processed). At times, I prefer her solo work to Beyoncé’s because so much of it has so little to do with the Destiny’s Child sound.
Her 2002 debut solo album, Simply Deep, was a blend of R&B and singer-songwriter-style pop that featured lyrically complex, mid-tempo singles like “Stole” and “Train on a Track,” both of which would have fit in perfectly on ’70s adult-contemporary radio, or a classic-era TLC CD, to illustrate their unique, hard-to-peg appeal. They’re as good as anything on Beyoncé’s three solo albums, but they lack the immediate hookiness of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and reward patience.
Ms. Kelly, Rowland’s 2007 second solo album, though solid, was a slight misstep, a too-obvious attempt to gain commercial ground that ended up blending into the crowded field of R&B divas. Although it sold well internationally, unlike Simply Deep, it didn’t even go gold in the States.
Now, apparently, all she wants to do is dance. Unfortunately for the commercial prospects of “Commander” in the U.S., the dance music she favors is a bit edgier than the danceable pop that Lady Gaga consistently takes to the top of the charts. Rowland is hedging her bets with two new U.S. singles, “Rose Colored Glasses,” which is being released to radio this week, and “Grown Woman,” due July 17. Less musically aggressive than “Commander,” both are still to the left of what normally passes for modern R&B.
Though I’d like to see her return to the quiet, thoughtful pop of the aforementioned Simply Deep singles, I applaud her for following her musical instincts rather than singing the obvious (straight-up R&B). Firing her longtime manager Matthew Knowles (Beyoncé’s dad!) and leaving Columbia Records for Universal Motown were equally commendable moves; perhaps now she will be treated like a priority and not just a diversion between Beyoncé albums.
I’m certain that someday Rowland finally will score the second solo U.S. hit that thus far has eluded her — one where she won’t have to share the glory with Nelly, David Guetta or anyone else. Maybe it will be “Rose Colored Glasses” or “Grown Woman.” Maybe not. But homeland success will be all the sweeter if she gets it on her own creative terms.