Who is Keri Hilson? Well, if her cute dress-me-up music video for “Pretty Girl Rock” is to be believed, she’s the culmination of a tradition that includes Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Diana Ross again (I think), Janet Jackson, and T-Boz. Oh, and Patricia Andrews with her “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” sisters. Hilson likes to play dress up and she knows her idols, but if the overproduced, under-clothed video for “The Way You Love Me” is to be believed, and I expect it is, she trusts her ability to thrust her hips toward recoiling cameras more than she believes in the power of her vocal track. Oh, and the girl appears to lead from the landing strip.
Both tracks are singles from her new album, No Boys Allowed, and both are reasonable representations of the state of the R&B art (thanks to production from, respectively, Ne-Yo and Polow da Don), but it’s the psychological distance between the two videos that points to the absence of anything in the middle ground. Keri, Keri is so very…what? It sounds like she’s making a move at Chaka-Whitney “every woman” territory, only with a few key differences. She adores being a girl: “Pretty Girl Rock” comes on like a cat fight, but it eventually reveals itself to be a tough-loving “love yourself” anthem, a stately but danceable approximation of Dove’s campaign for “real beauty.” She reaches a “Breaking Point,” assessing a toxic situation against a sterilized Timbaland doo-wop backbeat and musing, “I hate to say it, but I wanted your last name,” before scolding, “Ladies, we really should be mad at ourselves, ‘cause some women just tolerate too damn much.” John Legend contributes “All the Boys,” a song that, like so many Legend compositions, allows no room for his vocalists to seize control and assert their own personality.
All of this is to say that, even as Hilson attempts to frame her album as a funky, midtempo moment of self-actualization, she frames the entire question around the titular concept (she holds the keys to the kingdom, and wields a velvet rope). In other words, she misses the independence espoused by everywomen Khan and Houston and essentially says “That’s a good idea” to her reverse harem of producer-songwriters. Just a girl who can’t say no?