10 Years Later: Keyshia Cole’s Debut Album ‘The Way It Is’ Speaks to a Generation of Women Looking for Loyalty and Love
R&B has always revolved around stories of love. Whether it be joy or heartache, infatuation or yearning, these songs speak to the emotions of men and women worldwide and tap into the most common aspects of the human condition: to be loved and cared for.
There have been many artists since the genre emerged that infuse stories of heartbreak and emotional abuse with grit and soul, but when looking back on the last 10 years, no female artist has been able to speak to the plight of a young woman longing for love and affection quite like Keyshia Cole. And to be quite frank, her life story made her the perfect spokesperson for the job.
Bred in the inner city of Oakland, Calif., Cole was the product of a broken home and adopted by family friends at the age of two. She never met her biological father and with a drug-addicted mother that was less than encouraging of her aspirations, it's safe to say that she wasn't dealt the best hand in life. "When she was on drugs, my mother used to say to me, ‘You're gonna end up just like me," the vocalist revealed in an interview with Essence. Even with a broken home on the come-up, the singer refused to let her mother's words deter her, putting her faith in God and vowing to persevere.
She found solace in the arts and honed her skills as a singer and writer. Keyshia received her first big break at the age of 12 when her brother -- a rapper by the name of Nutt-So -- introduced her to MC Hammer, who took a liking to the young, feisty talent. Hammer took her under his wing, even allowing her to record backup vocals on a song titled "I'm Just a Kid."
While that song was never released commercially, the experience was priceless and ultimately lead to collaborating with other local talent, as well as a meeting with the late Tupac Shakur. Tapped by MC Hammer to perform at a Death Row Records Mother's Day Party, Cole's talent intrigued the legendary MC, who mentored her until his untimely death in 1996.
Keyshia had returned to Oakland and worked in a coffee shop and as a hairstylist to make ends meet. With her dreams still in sight, she struck gold when she recorded a demo inspired by a two-timing boyfriend that fell into the hands of Ron Fair, then an A&R for A&M Records. That demo would ultimately evolve into a song called "Love," the first single from the singer's debut album, The Way It Is.
Watch Keyshia Cole's "(I Just Want It) To Be Over" Video
The album served as a light at the end of the tunnel for Cole and was the culmination of years of trials and tribulations, not to mention emotional drama. The lead single, "I Changed My Mind," produced by Kanye West, is a resounding jam that announced her arrival as the new-age version of Mary J. Blige and someone that was more concerned with speaking to the around-the-way girl looking for unconditional love in a world that has shown her nothing but the opposite.
Released on June 21, 2005, the album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold over 89,000 units in its first week of release. She received solid reviews from various critics across the board, including Janet Tzou of Entertainment Weekly, who wrote "These days, a major label R&B album debut can be a predictable enterprise. Former M.C. Hammer backup singer Keyshia Cole certainly nails all the basics on The Way It Is: big-name guest talent (Kanye West, Eve) and husky ballads lamenting those tricky matters of the heart," in her glowing review of the album. And the praise was more than justified, as The Way It Is is a solid debut LP from a female R&B singer detailing the nasty sides to love.
As soon as you're greeted with Cole's vocals on the album opener, "(I Just Want It) To Be Over)," it's evident that you're not dealing with a manufactured pop tart hiding behind glossy production and cute songwriting; this is an actual artist to be reckoned with. "(I Just Want It) To Be Over" is a great first impression, but the LP fully hits its stride with the aforementioned banger, "I Changed My Mind," which features a clap-happy soundbed that Cole glides over with grace while providing a new anthem for all the disgruntled woman tired with their significant other's BS.
But don't make the mistake and assume that The Way It Is is strictly a single's affair, which is evident once you give a spin to the standout selection, "Love, I Thought You Had My Back." Co-produced by Ron Fair and Toxic, the track wins with its grand instrumentation and strong arrangement, which sets the stage for Cole to lay down an impassioned vocal performance. "A girls gotta go through it and every man's gotta go through it / It's this thing called love," croons Cole with the conviction of a woman that knows that fact firsthand.
The following track, "I Should've Cheated," would become Cole's first top five hit and is based on a woman that feels she should have acted out on her mate's accusations of infidelity after discovering he wasn't being faithful himself. After getting an appearance from Jadakiss on the uptempo number, "Guess What," the album's main draw arrives with the smash single, "Love."
The same song that secured her a record deal would also be the tune that would boost her to stardom. Originally slated to be her debut single, its release as the fourth single from The Way It Is was timely and helped boost the album past the mark of one million copies sold. The track peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is recognized as Cole's biggest single to date -- an instant classic.
Watch Keyshia Cole's "I Changed My Mind" Video
On "We Could Be," the songstress from Northern Cali gets sentimental, and collaborates with producer-rapper Chink Santana on the sleeper cut, "Situations," which wins with its plush backdrop and infectious bridge and hook. Singles may have ingratiated Keyshia Cole to the general public, but album cuts like the sensuous "Down and Dirty" are the tunes that truly endeared her to her devoted fan base. The track, produced by Gregory G. Curtis, features hot-and-heavy lyrics and an addictive hook, and is one of the more superior offerings from the LP.
The proceedings move along with "Superstar," which features Metro City and is a highlight in its own right, with their vocals meshing to create a sultry ditty that gets our nod of approval. The Way It Is ends with a bang on the strength of the Eve-assisted number, "Never," which samples Luther Vandross' 1981 hit, "Never Too Much." The effort was featured on the Barbershop 2 soundtrack and was released as Cole's official debut single. While many artists tend to botch modern renditions of vintage soul records, Cole makes it her own with added wrinkles to keep it from being an outright cover and giving it a smidgen of her hard-knock grit.
The Way It Is would propel Keyshia Cole to stardom by the end of 2005 and go on to be the second highest-selling album of her career. Fans and critics alike christened her as the new voice for around-the-way girls, similar to what Mary J. Blige accomplished more than a decade earlier with her own debut, What's the 411.
While Mary J's hip-hop sensibilities were blatant, Cole's were more subtle and disguised through lush production and stellar songwriting. Their approach may have differed musically, but both albums hold the same sentiment and have put them in a special class of artists that truly represent for the women. Despite the circumstances Keyshia has faced and the ghosts of her past, she still has a beating heart deserving of love. The Way It Is gets this message across in a special way that sets it apart from the pack and makes it a classic album 10 years after its release.
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