An audience with the reality TV star who makes the realest R&B.
R&B, traditionally the genre of love and romance, never fails to mark Valentine's Day: themed mixtapes and EPs have become customary. But this year, between Ne-Yo's gentlemanly advice on 3 Simple Rules and JoJo's take on classic love songs on LoveJo, one release stood apart from the rest. Still No Fucks Given, screamed the title of K. Michelle's offering—and reverberated throughout as a vocal stamp—a blast of white-hot rage amidst all the soppy sentiment. "Fuck You," "Drink Bleach," and "She Can Have You" declared the songs therein.
"Around then I wasn't feeling very romantic," K. Michelle laughs today, over Skype from her base in downtown LA. "Roses, chocolate, candy, I wasn't feeling like that. And a lot of women weren't. A lot of women beat themselves up over the head over Valentine's Day, they go crazy over some flowers and shit. I was like, no way. It's just another day. And it's just another day when you realise men are NOT. GOOD."
A willful disregard for propriety, fighting talk at every turn and a healthy dose of misandry: these are the things that have characterized Kimberly Michelle Pate's circuitous and often traumatic rise to success. An early mixtape, 2010's What's The 901?, was a hard-hitting showcase of a vital voice in R&B, but a record deal with Jive fell through—K. Michelle would later allege abuse at the hands of her ex, who worked for the label—and the promised debut album proper, Pain Medicine, never materialized. As the decade progressed, K. Michelle's strong-voiced, confessional aesthetic fell out of fashion: in an era of soft-voiced cooing and submarine synths, where was the space for an artist whose dictionary had pages torn out in place of words like "restraint" and "subtlety"? Reality TV—specifically, Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta—it turned out, where a pugnacious K. Michelle's antics (up to and including throwing a lit candle at a rival's head) gained her an audience when she joined the show in 2012 and paved the way to a No. 1 R&B album with her belated debut, last year's Rebellious Soul. It seemed to open the floodgates for the singer, unleashing a year of unbridled creativity. There was the victory lap that was Still No Fucks Given, and then, just for the hell of it, as befitting a former R. Kelly protégée, K. Michelle persuaded Idris Elba to direct a half-hour musical version of the album, screened on VH1 in August. "I redid the album and I invited the label heads to hear it—they said, you must have too much time on your hands," she grins. It was more like making up for lost time, though—and now she's getting ready to release her second album, Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?, on December 9th, via Atlantic Records.
"It's almost impossible to break as an African-American woman right now without TV," K. Michelle sighs. "Reality TV put eyes on me—but it makes it difficult when it comes to Grammy nominations. 'Oh, she's not supposed to be here.' But this album, they won't have a choice but to give me the looks I deserve. You can't deny this music. I'm gonna be in your face. For Rebellious Soul to come out and do so well, that was about kicking in the door and saying: I'm here. Now people are starting to respect me and my craft, I wanted to make sure this album showed what I can do. I went in, I ate some edibles—because I live in LA and that's legal here—and whatever I felt, that's what I did." Country, funk and K. Michelle's formidable piano skills all get a look-in on Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?, but it's the same unfiltered, at times uncomfortable willingness to dissect the blood and guts of her emotions that holds it together.
"It's hard not to be honest, and that's the problem," she says. "Sometimes I don't need to be as honest as I am. But being honest is what allows me to go to sleep at night. I write songs because it's like therapy—and it's difficult because you genuinely have to relive those moments that you're going through, then you have to get on stage and perform it. Even though you're touching people, it still brings you back to that place. After I do songs I tend to not listen to them, or sing them outside of my shows, because sometimes it can bring you kinda down." Four years ago, K. Michelle prefaced "Where They Do That At?"—one of the stand-out cuts from What's The 901? and, in a parallel universe, a classic R&B standard—with the words, This might be too real for the radio; it seems that sometimes, she's too real even for herself. (Inevitably, she shudders when she thinks of the "fuck everybody" anger that permeated What's The 901?, and speaks gratefully of her move to LA for giving her a new sense of calm.)
Speaking of the radio, K. Michelle's ire has been raised by a few of its recent trends. "I've been very bored with R&B," she snaps. "Everybody's whispering on top of trap beats. Barely singing!" Chris Brown doesn't win any favors in K. Michelle's book, either. She was one of a host of female artists—including Keyshia Cole, Lil' Mo, and Mila J—who responded to "Loyal"'s ubiquitous call of These hoes ain't loyal, jumping on its hot beat and firing back in a collection of remixes that should be vital to any conversation about misogyny in pop music this decade.
Unsurprisingly, K. Michelle landed some of the sharpest blows, taking on generations of patriarchal fuckery and spitting her derision at the idea that she should owe any man anything. The song clearly stayed on her mind: "Love 'Em All," the lead single from Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?, was a second snapback from a different, equally bold, angle, pledging herself to a dating life of non-commitment. Why can't they understand/ Sex is irrelevant? she wondered. Just a game in my head I'm playing—and I'm winning. Far healthier, I'm sure we can agree, than moping around waiting for heartbreak.
" I can sing to every woman, not just one ideal woman. I speak for the underdog, for the misunderstood."
"I'm not very appreciative of the way men are treating women," expands K. Michelle on "Loyal" and its frattish ilk. "They're treating women like enemies. They're saying all kinds of things about women. R&B singers back in the day used to stand down and pray and cry for their women and it was about love. Nowadays they treat us like trash and I'm not. For. That." Neither does she fall into the trap of the good girl vs. bad girl dichotomy that's still, incredibly, being propagated. Throughout her work, K. Michelle's identification with the strippers and side chicks held in such contempt by her male peers is a beacon of hope. In the Rebellious Soul musical, K. Michelle plays a stripper whose first words are to ask a salivating punter, "Is that how you speak to your daughter?" Later, the plot's darkest revelations are triggered by her mother snidely labelling her daughter a "whore."
Such solidarity is informed by K. Michelle's own experiences. "I identify with them because I used to be a dancer," she says. "People have these perceptions, they think dancers are sluts or something like that. But that paid for my demo. And I had a college degree when I was a stripper—it was in psychology; I've always been interested in the mind and how it works. I was my college queen! I was everything. But I dated a guy who left me with nothing. I needed quick money. So I was a stripper, and I'd help the girls fill out their college applications in the strip club. It's not always what you think. So that's why I tend to take up for strippers and so on. I can see it from their eyes. I can see it from main chicks' eyes. I can see it from side chicks' eyes. I can sing to every woman, not just one ideal woman. You can see the college graduate, and then the stripper will come and speak. I speak for the underdog, for the misunderstood."
This isn't just something K. Michelle does in song: unpublicized, she says she visited women's shelters in every city she visited while on the Rebellious Soul promo trail. "You think your story is bad, then you talk to these women," she reflects. "Their fathers beat them, raped them. Every city, I was crying. But looking at how I was treated when I talked about my abuse, I see why women don't come out. They get told, well, you're to blame. It's really sad."
K. Michelle's own story is one that's familiar to viewers of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta—and it's landed her with a lawsuit, not that this prevents her from going into furious detail today. "My ex is suing for defamation of character," she says, rolling her eyes. "I never said his name once on TV; I just talked about my story. And no, he didn't punch me. But I got dragged along the floor. I got a towel put over my face—not once, but twice. I blacked out to the point where I could've died. I was screaming down the hallway, 'Help me, he's trying to kill me.' But society's saying, oh, that doesn't matter because he didn't punch you. His family said that because I wasn't 'Rihanna-like,' it wasn't abuse. Abuse comes in all forms: physical, mental. And for me to have physical abuse happen, but for society to say it isn't to their standards—you know, for the women I'm fighting for, that lets me know how sick things are. It lets me know a lot of women are getting abused, but they think it's OK."
Warming to her task, K. Michelle touches on the NFL's recent mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case: "A lot of organizations won't take action. Not until somebody's dead. Women call the police all the time about abuse and they don't do anything. You know, I'm still scared of my ex. He told me he would never leave me alone. So I don't know if I'm going to wake up to him bashing me. I still have to go through a court case against the person that abused me. They allow him to sit and stare at me. Something has to happen for women and I'm going to keep fighting. It's sickening and disgusting."
The tension that's always run through K. Michelle's music is a classic head vs. heart conundrum: the high passion of the emotions she can't help but feel, constantly running into the brick wall of no-good men. She's ambivalent about this dilemma today, hand-waving nebulously about wanting to keep her hope in love but, regarding her current head space, stating firmly: "I'm in a work place right now." Meanwhile, her on-record sisterly advice continues to take the impossibility of men doing women right as a starting point, and on "How Do You Know?"—one of her favorite songs from her new album—she treats her feelings as a curse to be lamented. "I sing I'd rather be cold than wrapped up in love. You get so tired of being heartbroken sometimes that you're like, No! Just leave me numb!" But it's in vain, as well she knows: numb is the one thing that K. Michelle can never be.
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records.