On March 24, 2009, exactly 10 years ago, Keri Hilson released her debut album In A Perfect World… via Mosley Music Group/Zone 4/Interscope Records.
In the years leading up to the album’s release, she worked as a songwriter who co-penned hits for artists like Mary J. Blige’s “Take Me As I Am” (2005), Pussycat Dolls’ “Wait A Minute” (2005), Omarion’s “Ice Box” (2006), Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” (2007), Bobby Valentino’s “Anonymous” (2007), and Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” (2007).
Hilson not only co-wrote the latter Timbaland single, which appeared on his Shock Value album, she was also a featured artist. The desirable track reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which only helped bring worldwide name recognition for Hilson.
When it was time for Hilson to shift gears from songwriter to solo artist, she recalls it being pretty smooth. “Honestly, being a songwriter was like the more realistic side but the dreamer Keri had always dreamt of being an artist,” Hilson tells Rated R&B.
“I remember it being a very welcomed transition. As a matter of fact, during that time, I was actually signed and shelved for maybe three or four years before I actually came out. So, the transition didn’t go exactly as it appears for everyone else. I was already signed as an artist but I just had to wait for my turn.”
Although she had to wait her turn, she didn’t let any time go to waste. As mentioned previously, she used the time to focus on songwriting. “It allowed me the opportunity to grow financially,” she explains to Rated R&B.
“When you get signed, you have an advance and you sign your deal and you have to work solely on your project. If that gets shelved, and you have no other means of income or livelihood, then you’re jacked. It was a really welcomed thing for me. By the time I came out, it was awesome. God’s timing.”
In A Perfect World… was originally slated to release in mid-2008, following her and Timbaland’s international success with “The Way I Are.” That year, she released a couple of singles, along with accompanying music videos: the emotionally-tapped “Energy” and the futuristic-sounding “Return the Favor.”
Still, the release date for Perfect World was bumped multiple times. In a later interview with MTV, Hilson remained optimistic about the entire situation. “I have had many [release dates], but it’s all for a good cause,” she said. “The label wants to make sure the album has its proper release, and I’m thankful for that. Very grateful, even though fans look at it like it’s a bad thing.”
It wasn’t until Hilson released her saucy single “Turnin’ Me On” featuring Lil Wayne in December 2008, when the album release looked more promising. In A Perfect World… eventually orbited its way to fans across the world a little over three months later.
The majority of the 14-track album was co-produced by Timbaland and Polow Da Don. It included additional features from Kanye West, Ne-Yo, Keyshia Cole, Trina and Akon. Kanye and Ne-Yo were contributed to, what would become Hilson’s biggest hit, “Knock You Down.” The warming tune peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Hilson a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 52nd Grammy Awards in 2010.
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of In A Perfect World…, Hilson spoke with Rated R&B about some tracks on the album and what the project means to her a decade later.
“Knock You Down” featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo became a hit, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and also scored you a Grammy nomination. What do you remember most about recording this song?
Ne-Yo was already on the song but if you could remember that I shot a video called “Make Love.” It was just like a teaser video for my album. So, Kanye [West] agreed to do it. It was the same day my album was being mastered in Canada. After we were nearly done the filming, Kanye asks, “So how’s your album coming?” He’s like, “I love your work. I can’t wait to work with you.” I said, “It’s going really good but it’s something missing.”
He made a face like, “What do you mean?” I said, “The only thing that’s missing is you.” He said, “Oh, well can I do it tonight?” I said, “Yeah, it’s actually being mastered tonight so you have to do it tonight.” He was like, “Yeah I mean that.”
He had an event to go to — he and Amber [Rose] were at the shoot. He and Amber went to their event, then really showed up to the studio. I was super honored. I was just playing him records because he wanted to hear what I was working on. I played him the song “Alienated” because I had wanted him to get on that. He liked “Knock You Down” but I was like, “Ne-Yo is on it already. I don’t think that song needs two features.” [laughs]. He just insisted and we let him do the verse. He killed it. It was long as hell and there was a lot a drama because we had to shorten his verse. It was like 60 bars! It was so long. We had to cut it down to like 20 bars — even that’s a long verse.
“Get Your Money Up” featuring Keyshia Cole and Trina is an anthem. How did it come together and what led you to use Auto-Tune?
That idea was started by a rapper name [Earl Hayes], who ended up involved with that murder-suicide with the dancer Stephanie [Moseley]. He actually began that song idea just in a night with Polow Da Don. When I heard it, I loved it. He did it in Auto-Tune because he’s a man singing a girl’s song, so he did it heavily Auto-Tuned. It was really interesting. I’m not a person that needs Auto-Tune but I like it for the effect, so I kept it.
Teyana Taylor was originally featured on the “Get Your Money Up.” Were there any other artists who were considered for the part?
To be honest, I don’t ever recall hearing the Teyana version. Maybe Polow had her do it. Maybe he sent it to her or she sent it to him. I’ve never heard the Teyana version. I know there was a Lil Kim version that I did hear. And maybe there were others. It’s possible, that’s kind of the way Polow works [laughs].
“Slow Dance” is a fan-favorite. What do you remember most about working on this song with Justin Timberlake?
I love Justin. He was like kind of a mentor to me during that time. We were all at Timbaland’s studio — Thomas Crown Studios. I was working on my stuff. He was working on his stuff. And the track was playing. Justin was doing a driveby walking by our session. We just start playing around with some Prince-ish melodies. That’s really how it started.
We ended up beginning the song together, then he eventually went on to his own session and then I just finished it. I finished writing it and Jim Beanz — I had him doing some arrangement on it after it was finished being written, which is he’s really good at that. I love my arranging now, but when it comes to wanting other flavors, to me that’s Jim’s expertise. I had to color a few records on my album. I call it coloring because it’s kind of like filling in gaps and filling in the blanks of arranging.
The second half of the album finds you in a vulnerable place. You wrote vulnerable songs for other artists in the past. Was it easy for you to open up this time as the artist?
To be honest, that’s not hard for me at all. By the time I had worked on my album, I realize that was my strength. My strength was saying things women would not say or talk about. I think at that point I had realized my strength was talking about things that did not make me perfect and that’s why I named the album In A Perfect World... I was like, “Listen, the last thing we need is another woman coming into the game pretending to be perfect.” I’m not saying we didn’t have those artists — we, of course, had the Mary J. Blige’s. I think that’s why I was able to write with some of the more vulnerable artists because that was the perspective that I became so gifted in.
I was always disappointed that the most vulnerable records weren’t released as singles. I still feel a disappointment that people don’t really what I truly am about. The more vulnerable side of me is what I wanted people to hear but my label must’ve thought differently. Of course, I have pop appeal but you can be pop and talk about some real shit [laughs].
“Tell Him The Truth” is pretty vulnerable. Was there a particular situation you went through that you were singing about on this record?
I’m going to be honest, it’s about cheating. It’s about being curious as a young person. I was in my early 20s when I wrote that. I had a boyfriend at the time and there were things that I experienced. I’m grateful that I did because I learned early how it feels to hurt someone and how it feels to be hurt. Having that perspective was important to me and writing about that was equally as important. It was kind of therapy for me at that moment. I remember crying as I was writing it.
There are so many nuances on the album that attribute to being in outer space, in a sense. For instance, there’s that robotic voice at the beginning of “Turnin Me On,” the sound of a spaceship at the beginning of “Make Love,” the production on “Return the Favor,” and even titles like “Alienated.” Who came up with this idea?
Honestly, it wasn’t on purpose and you’re actually the first person to ever make me aware that there was that much of it. It’s one of those ‘beautiful mistakes’ because it was not intentional. I guess it was just the things that I gravitated towards. The title of the album had been determined for a long time [laughs]. So I don’t think the other worldly influences were intended, only on “Alienated” was it intentional. The rest were one beautiful big mistake that you are pointing out for the first time in my life [laughs]. But it worked…even the album cover. Sometimes things just happen and you think there’s thought put into it, when it’s more of a spiritual alignment happening.
In addition to the solid tracks on the standard album, you also had great songs that were released as bonus tracks.
Honestly, that hurt me so bad because there are records that I felt needed to make the main album not just the international or the deluxe.
Yes, “Quicksand” would’ve been a great fit on the album…
That’s good ole politics because [“Quicksand”] was a better record than a couple of records that made the album. You have to play politics. The execs have their feelings. Your production company and your label have their feelings. I had to play the politics game but never again. I’ll tell you that!
So, you believe politics created hurdles for this album?
I feel like for as good as that album was, it could have been 10 times better if I didn’t have to play politics. The things that I believed strongly in, worked. The things I had to play politics in, flopped. Singles that I had to kind of be forced to do didn’t work. The things I truly believed in did work.
Any last remarks looking back at In A Perfect World… 10 years later?
First of all, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years in some respect. But in other respects, it feels like ages ago. As a human being, I’ve just grown so much since that time. I’m still proud of that. That was my first baby and I really put a lot of care into that project. The outer space stuff wasn’t intentional but there was a lot of intention in every other realm of the album.
It was a couple of years in the making from start to finish. I remember being in tears walking down Best Buy when it released. I was just in tears. That album was a cumulation of a dream that I had been pursuing for 12 years to that point. Songwriting for eight or nine years was a fallback plan. I just knew if I didn’t give up, that it would happen. It was an emotional time. It was like I could breathe for the first time. I was finally seeing my childhood dream come alive.
Stream In A Perfect World… below.