Limping into release 16 months after its first single dropped, and only one month after Beyoncé‘s 4 hit the charts, Kelly Rowland’s third album seems doomed to elicit further comparisons between the singer and her former bandmate. This association is furthered by the fact that Here I Am is an ostensible declaration of independence, Rowland’s first album away from Destiny’s Child’s Columbia homebase and without Matthew Knowles as her manager. Yet it’s most likely an expression of Beyoncé and Rowland’s differing status levels that the two albums have so little in common. Rowland doesn’t have the cachet or personality to manage believable assertions of self-love and feminist solidarity, instead forced to vary between mock arrogance (“I’m Dat Chick”), bouncy celebrations of casual sex (“All of the Night”), and wan romantic placeholders (“Keep It Between Us”).
The relationship between the two artists, viewed through the lens of album guests and their own appearances elsewhere, sets up a discussion on the fascinating issue of hip-hop’s class system. Since her last album four years ago, Rowland has functioned not as much as a substitute for Beyoncé as a flatly defined second-tier voice, a recognizable name with a known history and a presentable image. She lacks an explicit charisma, which makes her guest contributions feel replaceable, an impression that extends to the boilerplate structures of Here I Am. Without an overtly marketable personality or a specific angle, this kind of album relies on guest stars to spice up the menu of uniformly bland, production-heavy tracks, and the ones that appear here serve as indicators of her standing.
The biggest guest is Lil Wayne, showing up perfunctorily on “Motivation” in a bit of self-promotion while his Tha Carter IV remains undelivered, but the impish superstar and his reputed $150k-a-pop fee seems to have left the coffers depleted. The only other voices here are Rico Love (who wrote/produced parts of Beyoncé‘s I Am…Sasha Fierce, as well as a good portion of this album), David Guetta, and obscure rappers like Lil Playy and Big Sean. This skimpy roster makes Here I Am sound distressingly bare, and depressingly short on surprises and diversion.
Rowland makes up for this by pushing the sex angle, but this pose never seems entirely natural, and clunky lines like “It’s going down like a basement” don’t make for the most enchanting atmosphere. Guetta’s contribution, “Commander,” provides a template for what Here I Am should be providing, with Rowland’s voice modulated alongside an ebullient 4/4 thump and weird sonic effects. The similarly electronic “Down for Whatever” masks the falseness of the forced sexuality by burying her voice in vigorous synths. Unfortunately, these songs are in the minority, and the inherent blandness of Rowland’s persona makes for too much roundly mediocre material.