Kelly Rowland was on the phone the other day from London, where she’s currently sifting through Britain’s amateur-vocalist population as a judge on season 8 of The X Factor. That’s the original U.K. version of the singing competition, by the way, not the American edition set to debut here September 21. Unlike her fellow judges, Rowland isn’t English; she was born in Atlanta and spent much of her youth in Houston. But the former Destiny’s Child member struck global dance-pop gold in 2009 with the disco-Coldplay euphoria of “When Love Takes Over,” her hit collaboration with French stadium-house maven David Guetta. So now her name carries enough weight in Europe to play roles other than Beyoncé’s former bandmate.
X Factor auditions had just wrapped up, and Rowland and her fellow judges were deciding which contestants to put through to finals. “For me, that’s just a little bit hard,” she admitted. “You see so many people with these dreams—they really wanna be stars! It’s a matter of making sure you make the right decision.” I asked her if she’d been surprised by the singers she’d seen so far—if they were different somehow from those in the States. “Talent is talent,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from. When you see a star, you see a star. They just shine.”
Do they, though? With Destiny’s Child, Rowland undeniably logged some serious time in the pop cosmos (even if I had to fact-check my assumption that only she and Beyoncé had appeared on all four of the group’s studio albums). But as a solo act Rowland has burned less brightly: Although “Dilemma,” her Grammy-winning duet with Nelly, topped the Hot 100 in 2002, none of Rowland’s singles between that one and “When Love Takes Over” made much of an impact. Beyoncé, meanwhile, seemed to dominate from day one.
The problem has been precisely what Rowland said doesn’t matter on The X Factor—the presentation of the talent. The singer’s first two solo albums, Simply Deep and Ms. Kelly, aren’t bad; indeed, parts of them—such as “Work,” a tough-talking soul-funk jam produced by Scott Storch in Xtina-circa-Stripped mode—are very good. But they’re weirdly diffuse; they don’t lay out an easily graspable idea of who Rowland is, perhaps because she assumed that her stint in Destiny’s Child had already provided us with one. (Let’s pause here to remember that Michelle Williams, the third member of DC’s final lineup, called her 2008 solo disc Unexpected, as though we had expectations about Williams to upend in the first place.)
From its title on down, Rowland’s new Here I Am seeks to clear up the issue, and interestingly the result plays in some ways like the inverse of Beyoncé’s ballad-heavy 4. The high-energy set of synth-soaked club tracks presents Rowland as a kind of Space Age sensualist, a determined pleasure-seeker for whom a good beat satisfies no less than a good man. “And when we’re done, I don’t wanna feel my legs,” she sings in “Motivation,” the bewitching hit single that spent part of July at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. You can decide if she’s talking about a night out or a night in.
There’s no doubting the influence of “When Love Takes Over” here, or of its commercial success. In our chat the singer told me that the song was more than just one of the best records she’d made. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, period,” she said. “When I came to this album, I definitely had pieces of that inspiration.” Good-sized pieces, too: The pounding, Guetta-produced “Commander” is as much a sequel to “When Love Takes Over” as the Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit)” was to the pounding, Guetta-produced “I Gotta Feeling.” “I feel like the DJ is my bodyguard,” Rowland confides in the new tune, a neat re-phrasing of Indeep’s oft-quoted “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” “You see the way he keeps me safe with the treble and the bass.”
Throughout Here I Am, Rowland and her collaborators (including Tricky Stewart, Rodney Jerkins and RedOne) use her finely detailed vocals to conjure the blend of intimacy and expansiveness that lyric evokes. “Motivation” producer Jim Jonsin thinks that quality is what distinguishes Rowland from any number of Eurodance-dabbling R&B artists right now. “[‘Motivation’] is a hard-sounding track,” he says. “It’s got the kind of beat that makes most rappers feel like, ‘Damn, I could rap on that.’ But Kelly sings it so sexy. It’s contagious.”
And so it is. For a pop star on her way back up, though, it’s also strategy: a way of outshining all the shininess around her.
Kelly Rowland headlines Power 105 Live at Governors Island on Sunday