Keri Hilson is an anonymous R&B diva who’s been offered up like a black Venus on the half-shell with a handful of vocal features to her name, the promise of being the next artist to drop on Timbaland’s MMG label, and a one-line bio that reads, “Discovered by Polow Da Don.” Though the description hardly scratches the surface of what the statuesque Atlanta native describes as a 10-year journey into the music biz, the tag carries a certain rest-is-history truth. “I was recording all the time,” she explains, “so I would see Polow around the city at various studios. One day he came up to me at Donnie Scantz’s and said, ‘A little birdie told me you were dope.’ He called Tim, I sang for him over the phone and he was immediately like, ‘Let’s do it, I’m down.’”

Although she photographs like one of those Raymond Chandler dames whose legs are long enough to step through a man’s eyes and stomp out a cigarette on his heart, on the phone Hilson talks less like Betty Boop and more like a novelist herself, explaining that she only made it into the spotlight with her “ear, brain and notebook.” In fact, she’s written tracks for everyone from Rich Boy to 3LW, and when we speak she is keeping her fingers crossed that Timbaland’s “The Way I Are”—which she not only wrote but sang on—will take the VMA for Monster Single of the Year.

Even if she has the legs and the voice and the unbeatable sound of Tim, Polow and Danja on her debut In a Perfect World, for a writer like Hilson, the proof of the album’s success will be found in the pudding of the songs themselves. A Snoop collaboration called “Happy Juice” features her voice disturbingly pitched down into the male register, dementedly repeating “Henny and apple juice”—a recipe for a sound halfway between the apple martini of neo-soul and the sizzurp embodied in the screwed chorus. “Quicksand,” apparently Jimmy Iovine’s favorite track, stays in the club territory of “The Way I Are” with Danja-produced percussion and a full choir of voices humming an eerie, wordless melody on the hook. The mewing synth washes of “Slow Dance,” which Hilson co-wrote with Justin Timberlake, are clearly designed to recall middle school booty grab classics like Ready For the World’s “Love You Down” or Guy’s “Piece of my Love,” but the machine beat takes her falsetto to a more transcendent emotional plane, channeling Prince at his “I Would Die 4 U” best. There’s an almost a spiritual urgency to “Slow Dance,” giving it a strength that can only come because it was written, as Hilson says, “from my own tongue.”

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GEN F: Keri Hilson