Kelly Rowland Has Been Holding Back

She’ll share the hardest story of her life on her new album.

Photo: Baz
Photo: Baz
Photo: Baz

Kelly Rowland entered our Zoom call and announced that she was barefaced. “That means I am wearing more makeup than you right now,” I said, mouth agape, and the singer shrugged. Reader, let me tell you something: Kelendria Rowland doesn’t have a single fucking pore on her face. Okay? Not-a-one. She told me her secret is a retinol serum she “swears by,” but a quick Google search will reveal to you that Rowland is, scientifically speaking, aging backward. She looks younger now than she did in 1999 on the cover art for The Writing’s on the Wall, which happened to be a CD I played incessantly in a device called a Discman. If you are old enough to know what a Discman is, then you are also old enough to have wrinkles. Wrinkles, however, are not something that Rowland has ever heard of.

But I digress. In case you can’t tell, I adore Kelly Rowland. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love her, stretching all the way back to the joy I felt when she finally got to sing the lead vocals on Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” When I moved to New York in 2009 with nothing but my virginity and a fake ID, Rowland was the soundtrack of my life. Her singles “When Love Takes Over” and “Commander” hit the 2000s gay club scene like a tab of ecstasy, with bass lines, piano melodies, and Rowland’s formidable, velvety mezzo-soprano reverberating throughout our glittering dance floors. When Proposition 8 — a notoriously homophobic piece of legislation — was struck down in California, thus paving the way for marriage equality to become legal, Rowland took the stage at Los Angeles Pride to perform “When Love Takes Over.” She tells me she can still remember the chills that ran all over her body when she realized “the overwhelming sense of love” in the audience.

In many ways, the woman I have idolized for so long is a far cry from where she started 25 years ago. Rowland has cultivated a legion of devoted fans — chief among them, me — who have always wanted to see her win. Perhaps that’s because, even at what should have been the height of her career, you could tell — if you really took the time to look — that underneath the surface, she seemed to be kicking and thrashing, doing anything she could to stay afloat. “Y’all just knew,” she says of her fans, shaking her head. It was clear that she was holding back — perhaps a lot more than any of us were bargaining for. Now, we’re all waiting on whatever she has to say next.

It has been seven years since Rowland’s last album, Talk a Good Game, and she knows that we are well overdue for a new release. To be fair, though, it’s not exactly like she’s left us hanging. There’s been a collaboration with Fabletics, a part on the Fox drama Empire, and her portrayal of Gladys Knight in the drama series American Soul — a role she was specifically requested for by the Empress of Soul herself. But really, the most pivotal moments have happened in her personal life. In 2014, Rowland married her manager, Tim Weatherspoon, in an intimate beach ceremony. Some six months later, she gave birth to their son, Titan. “When he came about, everything was no longer about doing things the right way,” Rowland says. “I was always so worried about being perfect. I thought, Well, if it looks like this, then they’ll like it. They’ll like me. If it sounds like this, then it’s going to be great. It’s going to work. Each time, I would let myself down.”

This next album, she explains, needs to be her absolute best yet — not because she had something to prove to herself. This time, she has something to prove to her family.

Ironically, the very thing that motivated Rowland to be her best — her experience with motherhood — is also what’s holding up her fifth studio album. So far, Rowland has finished and approved seven tracks, but “in order for the album to be complete,” she says, there is “one more story to tell” about the lingering absence of her own mother.

“It’s the hardest story of my life, because it’s the thing that I once thought was just so ugly,” she says.

Rowland has long referred to Tina Lawson (née Knowles) as “Mama T,” but the label is much more than a term of endearment. Over the decades of friendship between Beyoncé Knowles and Rowland, it was clear that they were not just sisters by name. In the early days, pre–Destiny’s Child, Rowland took up residence with the Knowles family. When giving interviews, Lawson names Rowland as one of her daughters. On Mother’s Day, the first picture the singer posted was of Mama T, accompanied by the caption, “to the woman that saw me when I couldn’t see myself.”

Hours later, Rowland posted a photo of her biological mother, Doris, who died just two and a half weeks after Titan was born. Throughout the grieving process, she realized, with the guidance of her “tribe,” that she had already absorbed so much about motherhood — from Mama T, “listening and instincts”; from Solange, “honesty”; and from B, how to be “nurturing.”

But, Doris’s loss deepened a wound, one that is still very much in the healing process. “My relationship with her was the most tumultuous relationship,” Rowland says. It’s not clear how much contact the two had over the years, and Rowland hasn’t spoken much publicly about their fractured relationship. “I still haven’t shared what it is, but I want to on the record,” she says. With that, she makes it clear that whatever’s left unsaid will have to wait for the album.

To those of us who’ve been watching Rowland over the years (some of us, the majority of our entire lives), her music has always felt like it was lurching toward a breaking point.

The clues were hiding in plain sight (or, rather, sound). In 2003, Rowland had just enjoyed the acclaim of her solo debut, Simply Deep, and the early success of its single, “Dilemma,” initially eclipsed Beyoncé’s solo entries “Work It Out” and “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” But one year later, when “Crazy in Love” hit the radio, it became clear to fans everywhere that watching Beyoncé was bearing witness to history in the making.

When Destiny Fulfilled came out a year later, things felt bittersweet in a profound way: Fans knew it was the group’s farewell, but things were a little different on this album — namely, the vocal talents of both Rowland and Michelle Williams would be featured more. Case in point: In the video for the single “Girl,” Beyoncé and Williams plead with Rowland, begging her to leave an unhealthy relationship. “Girl, I’ve been knowing you since you were 10. You cannot hide from your friends,” Beyoncé riffs in the second chorus. It didn’t exactly take a sleuth to realize that, in real life, Beyoncé had literally known Rowland since they were kids.

The story line felt too intentional to be anything but true — even if Rowland wasn’t ready to admit it publicly. “I remember ‘Girl.’ That was my life. I was living that toxic relationship,” she says now. Then she sings a verse: “‘Take a minute, girl, come sit down.’ It was real — it was literally Michelle, Mama T, Bey, Solange, and [their cousin] Angie trying to talk me out of this toxic relationship.”

Rowland wouldn’t reveal this truth until eight years after “Girl” hit the charts, when she was finally ready to add another, more complicated layer to the story. Her single “Dirty Laundry,” off Talk a Good Game, dropped like a bombshell. “Started to call them people on him, I was battered,” she sings. “He hittin’ the window like it was me, until it shattered.” Reports that followed the single’s release immediately speculated that the lyrics were about NFL player Roy Williams, Rowland’s ex-fiancé. (He has denied ever abusing her.)

“Dirty Laundry” revealed another uncomfortable revelation, one that accompanied and complicated her recollections of domestic violence. “He pulled me out and said, ‘Don’t nobody love you but me,’” the lyrics continue. “‘Not your mama, not your daddy, and especially not Bey.’ He turned me against my sister. I missed her.

“The whole business of comparing women is wrong — let’s just make that very clear,” Rowland says, addressing the theme of jealousy that took hold in the track. “People would use that stuff against me, the whole, ‘You’re not as this as the group,’ or ‘This is Michelle,’ or ‘This is Beyoncé.’” She says of her fans, “It’s a blessing to have someone see you. You were like, ‘I’m gonna stick by you during this whole situation because I know when you come out, you’re gonna have something to say.’”

Recording “Dirty Laundry” took days — an arduous experience during which her producer, The-Dream, begged Rowland to let her guard down and convey her feelings through the vocals. “I cried for an hour and a half,” she remembers now. “I went out, took a walk, came back to the studio, made an attempt to sing the song, and couldn’t get it out. So I took another walk and came back the next day.”

The song was a breakthrough for Rowland, both personally and professionally. By confronting the “blame” she had internalized for so long, she was able to release it through her music. “Everybody has their moments that they’re so ashamed to let people in on,” she says now. “But those are the very things you learn from.” It’s clear she’s working to implement those lessons on the forthcoming album, especially with regard to her mom.

Don’t get it twisted, though: All this emotional excavation doesn’t mean we’ll be getting a release full of sad songs. “Let me make this very clear,” she says, smiling and swaying. “This record is fun! I have a lot of tempo on it.” She promises that there will be lots of dancing — “’70s disco, Studio 54 dancing!” Perhaps even more delightful is her promise that, pending this one final track, the album will be out this year.

What we’ve heard so far feels like nothing short of a celebration. The project’s first single, “Coffee,” a slinky, sensual song about morning sex, was co-written by Syd and released earlier this spring. The video, directed by Steven Gomillion, features beachside shots of Rowland and a collective of black women glistening in the sun and sand. Viewers are invited to feast upon close-ups of Rowland’s sculpted physique decked out in blindingly white swimwear. In one sequence, she wears a wet, flesh-toned T-shirt with the name of the song printed across her chest, an apparent homage to the iconic “Jamaica” photo of Sintra Bronte.

The song charts familiar lyrical territory for Rowland, a self-described “sexually liberated woman” who has previously sung about the joys of sex on tracks like “Motivation” and “Kisses Down Low.” This time, she says, things are different. “In my late 20s and early 30s, I was really starting to find my footing with my sexuality,” she explains. “Then, when I became a mother at 33, I felt like I was about to lose it. When I heard [the beat for] ‘Coffee,’ something about it made me feel like I could find that flow.”

Recently, Rowland, like the rest of us, felt overwhelmed with all of the headlines about the coronavirus. So, in an effort to lighten the mood, she decided to bring up a specific vibrator in her group chat and ask if any of her friends had tried it. Eventually, the conversation evolved into one about masturbation. “Masturbation is actually a different level of knowing and satisfying [one’s] self,” Rowland says. “If you know yourself and can satisfy yourself, then you can invite someone to do that with you if you’d like.” To that end, the singer has recently started a series on Instagram Live called “Coffee With Kelly,” where she interviews the women in her life, engaging in candid conversations about sex.

Listening to Rowland talk about herself in this way felt refreshingly honest. She was unfiltered and, even better, unburdened. “I’m at this place where … I’m not shushing,” she says, laughing. “I’m not that girl! I’m not in that space in my life right now. I don’t feel that’s necessary.”

That fearlessness reminded me of a performance that has resurfaced on social media many times — when Destiny’s Child sang a cappella in an after-show interview at the 2000 Billboard Music Awards. The group wore sparkling pink and red dresses, styled by none other than Ms. Tina Lawson. Giddy after receiving the night’s award for Best New Artist, they answered questions from reporters. Eventually, someone in the room asked them to sing.

Beyoncé, whose arm had been casually draped around Rowland’s waist, now moved to firmly grip her friend’s upper arm. Rowland, who was chatting nervously moments before, fixed her gaze to the ground. After her bandmates delivered a sweet, gospel harmony of the word “amen,” Rowland entered on cue. She sounded like a choir unto herself — powerful, resonant, piercing. She held the note, belting for nearly ten seconds.

The top comment on the YouTube video of this performance seems to say it best: “Kelly with the voice of 1,000 ancestors!” She explains to me, nearly 20 years later, that she was simply giving God glory. “I was so grateful because even though we’d recently gone through this transition, there were still so many doors opening for us. I was just saying ‘thank you.’”

That performance — the might of her voice, the fight that was so clearly inside of her — is the perfect example of why I’ve always been rooting for Rowland. Whether it’s the queer people who danced freely and proudly to her songs at Pride, the black women who finally saw themselves in her successes, or the rest of us who always knew her talent should have earned her even more flowers than what she’s been given, Rowland carries a particular, pointed relevance. We too know what it’s like not to be able to believe in ourselves, to have swallowed our shame and waited our turn. We too know what it’s like to stand in the afterglow. And that’s exactly why we want, so badly, for Kelly Rowland to shine.

Kelly Rowland Has Been Holding Back