Keri Hilson doesn’t particularly care what you think, especially if you think she’s wrong. The 28-year-old is a regular (and not always unwitting) magnet for controversy but claims to be nonplussed by the chirping of her naysayers. “I don’t feel backlash”, she tells SoulCulture bluntly, “I rarely feel it”.
Given that in the past two years, Hilson has been attacked for her choice of collaborators, accused of cynically sexing-up her image, and disparaged for taking perceived indirect shots at her female peers, it’s lucky she deals so level-headedly with the running commentary.
Quizzed on whether the outrage over the raunchy (but arguably par-for-the-course) video for single “The Way You Love Me” was overblown, she responds with characteristic candour.
“It probably deserved some criticism. Did it affect me? No. The language deserved the criticism though, absolutely.” She continues, “That wasn’t the version that I sang to. If you look closely, I’m not singing ‘fuck me,’ I’m singing ‘thug me’. The video I recorded was the album version – somebody decided to sync the other version with the video and put that on WorldStarHipHop. It got 14 million views in less than a week. You can’t really be mad if people want to see something that you do, so I didn’t feel the criticism. I was just happy that people cared.”
Hilson claims the decision to shoot such an overtly sexual video was a personal choice, and not a calculated attempt to shift her act into adult territory. “That video was a decision of mine. I did it because even though I’ve never been that sexual, I am a woman and I do have that side of me. It wasn’t society’s pressures, otherwise I’d do that in every video. But, it was a moment in time and if you write a record like that, certain visuals come along with it.”
I ask her whether she would make such a raunchy video again and she replies, “It’s not something I want to make a habit of doing, but I don’t want to make a habit of censoring myself. If it feels right in the moment, I’ll capture that. It may live forever, but whatever you feel in the moment is the right thing to do. I didn’t feel the criticism. I wasn’t as impacted as others were. My intention wasn’t to throw it in the world’s faces, it was to do me. I honestly didn’t feel the criticism too strongly; I just lived through it while others had a problem with it.”
The idea of having and using the freedom to express oneself appears to be a recurrent theme. Current single “Pretty Girl Rock” is a sweet self-empowerment anthem celebrating unity and female beauty; on the surface it seems to be the antithesis of the sexual aggression that drives “The Way You Love Me.” In the video though, Keri dresses up as (and pays tribute to) female icons through the ages – the likes of Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, the Andrews Sisters, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Janet Jackson and TLC.
On whether the women she paid tribute to all inspired her personally she says, “of course – all of them went against what society told them to be.” She expands, “When you think about when TLC came out saying, ‘I’m not too proud to beg… if I need it in the morning or the middle of the night,’ it was very sexual and it was everything you weren’t supposed to be as a lady. They wore men’s clothing and condoms all over. They were beautiful girls but they were so tomboy-ish, you didn’t know what to think. That created a lane for them, even though they were just being themselves.
“I think that’s the message – Janet Jackson was just being herself. A great performer – people said ‘she’s too sexual’ but it never stopped her. Even Josephine Baker – they told her she was dancing too raunchy. People felt that she was being exploited but she was just doing what she did. She was fearless, she was bold, she went against the grain and became great. These are the kind of people that I look up to.”
Janet of course, is perhaps best known for the way she so brazenly wore her sexuality. I question whether the adage that “sex sells” has placed certain expectations on the way female artists represent themselves, and how this has changed since the days that Miss Jackson and TLC emerged.
“Back then, I think there was a choice. You had people that didn’t, like Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston. You had Mariah Carey, who eventually went there, but wasn’t sexual when she first started. These days there doesn’t seem to be such a broad stroke of types of artist. You’re either folk or soul, or else you’re R&B or pop – and then it’s almost like the sex has to be a part of it.”
Hilson’s retains her frankness she discusses the potential backlash to her decision to collaborate with Chris Brown on single “One Night Stand”: “He actually wrote the song. I decided to leave him on it. It was as simple as that.” She continues, “I don’t believe in undermining anyone’s creative efforts for a mistake that they make in their personal life.
“In the same way that if you worked at a corporate job and were participating in infidelity, as long as it didn’t affect your work, I can’t fire you. That’s your PERSONAL life, I’m not going to undermine what you bring to the table; what you bring to my business – I take that same view in music. We did this with Michael Jackson; we did this with R Kelly. I’m not going to kick someone whilst they’re down, I just don’t believe in that. [Chris Brown] is a great artist, and I will continue to collaborate with anyone who I consider a friend.”
On the subject of collaborators, she also features on UK rapper Chipmunk’s second single “In The Air” from his star-laden sophomore album Transition. Asked how the collaboration came about she reveals, “They just reached out. I was up on his music: I was in the UK when “Chip Diddy Chip” first came out and I dug him. I thought he was talented but, honestly, it wasn’t until I heard his newest music, the collaborations with Chris Brown and Trey Songz and the fact that he grew so much lyrically…. he came into his own as an artist and I love to see that happen. I was really pleased to be a part of his project.” Her verdict on Chip’s album: “It’s great music. Lyrically he’s on point and his hooks are on point.”
I’m curious as to whether she has her eye on any other UK talent. She tells me, “I love the soulful artists that come out of the UK. I love Adele, I love Estelle. Who else? Amy Winehouse. There’s really good soulful music coming from the UK.”
We touch on her album title, No Boys Allowed, which she claims is merely an expression of appreciation for ‘real men’ as opposed to immature boys. I ask her what makes a ‘real’ man.
“My definition of a real man is someone who respects women, someone who knows God and has some fear. You have to fear things in life – if you don’t fear anything… that’s a scary place. Someone who respects their mother, someone who has their priorities in tow. A man who is always forward-thinking and thinks about the future. Boys live for the moment, men live for the future and they’re cognisant of the decisions that they make and how that affects their future. Men are truthful – maybe not right upfront because it’s a hard thing for anybody to do, but if he’s confronted, a man stands up to his mistakes.”
As our conversation comes to an end, I recall that I first heard her name as a songwriter, something that she says “I honestly haven’t been doing much. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write for anyone else or focus on anything but my own career. I do want to get back into that. This year, I’m going to be on my tour bus recording for myself and other artists.” Is that a promise Miss Hilson? She laughs as she replies, “absolutely.”
Keri Hilson releases “Pretty Girl Rock” as her next UK single on July 4. Her current album, No Boys Allowed, is out now.