Viewers who remember Kimberly Michelle Pate’s breakout appearance on the first season of Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta will recall her as a forthright presence who speaks with no filters. (She has since graduated to her own VH1 platform, K. Michelle: My Life, which debuted this fall.) But last year’s debut Rebellious Soul displayed an artistry uncommon to the “celeb-reality” demimonde. As the woman who, in “My Life,” “comes up in this bitch with aggression” and offers provocations like “Can’t Raise a Man (who acts like a boy),” she threaded the needle between traditional late-night ballads and the trap-informed aggression of her friend and sometime collaborator August Alsina. By throwing shade at Tamar Braxton and lodging subtly homophobic innuendo at “soft” male singers, K. Michelle is often demeaned as too “ratchet”; an announcement of a forthcoming 2015 tour with Keyshia Cole led to some nasty Twitter jokes. Her critics would do well to separate the sometimes-bullying TV star from her emotionally vivid recordings.
K. Michelle struggled for years to gain traction in the music industry, and it took a label switch from Jive/Zomba to Atlantic (as well as her Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta stint) to get Rebellious Soul pulled out of mothballs. Its songs sounded thoroughly lived in. On Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?, which arrives just over a year later, she tries different tones, from the dramatic retro-soul outlines of “Judge Me” and “Build Me a Man” to the surprising blues-rock arrangement of “God I Get It.” In a perfect world, her resolve to learn from her past mistakes and not “miss out on blessings” might get a few adult contemporary radio spins. Much like Mary J. Blige‘s work with Sam Smith on the just-released London Sessions, and Tank‘s use of post-Timbo and Justin Timberlake disco sounds on Stronger, K. Michelle is figuring out how to expand her base beyond the dreaded “adult R&B” ghetto.
Meanwhile, black urban pop is full of singers that underplay their abilities and modulate their voices into a thin, reedy style that approximates melodic rap. It’s no wonder that some folks are still confused over whether the likes of Ty Dolla $ign and Rico Love are rappers or R&B artists. In contrast, K. Michelle always sings her guts out. On “Cry,” she wails like Roy Orbison as she sings, “You’re gonna pay me in tears, you owe me for all these years.” There’s a great moment on “Something About Now” when she scats jazzily as the track breaks down into a synth-funk whirl. For “Hard to Do,” she paints a wonderfully erotic image: “Fishnets and trench coats/ Underneath is the bomb.” Then she follows up with a challenge: “What you gonna do when I put that pretty thing on you?”
Some of the tracks on Heart aren’t strong enough to sustain her. “Love Em All” is a nice conceit about sexual voracity with clumsy lyrical execution. “Maybe one day I’ll settle, but for now I’ll just play around,” she sings awkwardly. “Drake Would Love Me” is the weakest of the lot, an obvious ploy for Facebook feeds and gossip sites, even as she tries to incorporate hit titles from the Canadian rapper’s catalog into the verses. “He would treat me like his grand prize/ Trophy,” she sings unconvincingly.
However, the yearning title of her second album has a purpose here. K. Michelle is striking a softer pose and subtly expanding her artistry past the now-familiar Rebellious Soul. And if she has to waddle into the reality TV muck to sell us her Heart, then so be it.