Writing her first song at 12, it would seem like R&B star Keri Hilson was made to create hits. It’s pretty good work if you can get it. And she did — Hilson crafted chart-toppers for artists like Britney Spears, Beyonce, Ludacris and Usher. But for this singer/songwriter, collecting royalty checks wasn’t her idea of success.
Her 2009 debut, with high-profile collabs Ne-Yo and Kanye West, resulted in a Grammy nod, Best New Artist wins from the NAACP Image Awards and BET Awards, along with a tour with Lil Wayne. With her new album, “No Boys Allowed,” she is working hard to show the world a whole new side to Miss Keri Baby (one of her nicknames). The Atlanta native explains, “I think part of being an artist is shedding off pieces of yourself with time.”
And shed she certainly does in the video for “The Way You Love Me,” the first clip from “No Boys Allowed.”
You know you damn near broke the Internet with that racy video, right? Did the reaction surprise you?
Did I? [Laughs.] No, it didn’t surprise me. They have seen the lovey-dovey side, they have seen the emotional. They haven’t seen the sexy side. I’m a woman. We’re classy. We’re raunchy. We’re freaky. We’re confident. And we’re insecure sometimes. And with my album to represent the everyday, average real woman, I have to show every side of that.
Did the reaction seem heavy because we haven’t seen that from you?
Yeah, I think so. I’m not mad that it catches people off-guard. I don’t want people to ever expect the same thing out of me. I’m capable of a lot of things. I don’t want to be in a box. If I had to be a little extreme to climb out of that box, then that’s what I had to do.
The new single, “Pretty Girl Rock,” feels like the female empowerment songs of TLC. Were they a big inspiration for the song and the album?
Absolutely! For that time, that was very controversial. For that time, it was very different. And I think that a lot of women gravitated toward and related to TLC. But think of Janet Jackson. Think of Madonna. Even recently, think of Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera. I’m not saying I’m that stature of an artist; I would obviously like to be. I think if more women see this feminine energy — visually, emotionally, sonically — they will learn to understand. Even if it shocks them right now in this moment.
How did you get started writing songs?
I was taking piano lessons. But piano for me contained a lot of math. … Recital came up and I sort of manipulated my piano teacher to play while I sang. So he is like, “You don’t know how to play a full song, but I will let you sing. You have to play as well. You have to compose the music and write it in its entirety.”