The first time I heard of Keyshia Cole, the street soul belter from Oakland, Calif., it was a scorching June afternoon in 2005 and I was visiting my mother in North Carolina for summer break.
In between eating everything from Totino’s Pizza Rolls and countless bowls of Smacks cereal, I was flipping back and forth between MTV and BET to watch music videos. Yes, those channels actually played music videos regularly back then before they were phased out for reruns of Black sitcoms and reckless reality shows.
As I settled comfortably on the living room sofa with my snacks of choice, the warm sound of snarky horns bounced off the eggshell-colored walls. The song was “(I Just Want It) To Be Over,” the music video credits read. I got a close look at the burgeoning singer, clad in a white tanking and sporting a funky orangish-red and blonde hairstyle, behind a green antique-style wall.
The video quickly panned to Cole in another casual look, capturing the singer exposing her emotions on her bare sleeves and eventually breaking through her frustrations and a wall mirror to yet another wardrobe change.
Beyond everything costume and set related, there was a powerful voice at the helm. It was unlike any other female singers at the time. While there was hurt and pain in her vocal performance, that came with its share of flaws, there also was a comfortable range to make those emotions come off seamlessly believable and not contrived.
Calling on the spirit of dial-up internet, I searched online to see if Cole had an album out. It had shown a release date of June 21, and said the album, The Way It Is, was released through A&M Records. Needless to say, I begged my mother when she got home from work to please purchase the album for me. I offered to pay her back with the often unavailable teenage funds that I didn’t have then or now.
An evening or two later, my mother surprised me with a copy of the album. I was only familiar with the one single I heard, so it only made sense to wear it out a few times before I went through the entire 12-track LP. It didn’t take long for me to have new album favorites, though.
Most of Cole’s debut album The Way It Is is made up of bittersweet songs and resilient anthems after having her heart beat up far too many times by a half-committed lover. She co-wrote 11 out of the 12 well-crafted songs, a rarity in the debut album arena.
She relied on the songwriting of 112 members Daron Jones and Q. Parker for “I Should’ve Cheated,” an accusatory soul jam that was originally meant for Nivea. Cole carries the harmonica-driven hood staple like she wrote it, belting it in a neck-rolling manner that translates well in this confrontational moment between her and her finger-pointing man.
The magic of this fault-finding quagmire goes beyond the studio version. Her ghetto-fabulous performance at the 2005 VIBE Awards sold the record, even gaining head nods from her hip-hop soul mother and legend honoree of the night Mary J. Blige.
Cole extracted samples from apparent soul influences for productions like “Love, I Thought You Had My Back,” which weaves the soulful stylings of “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness into the post-breakup anthem backdrop. Here, she is calling out love after a pinky promise surrounding a recent relationship became broken.
Though another chapter of heartbreak has closed for her, Cole doesn’t allow her agony to ruin it for others who still believe in happily forever. “You gotta know your focus in life / And if love is your focus / Then man pay attention,” she says towards the ending.
Songs like the fierce “Guess What” featuring Jadakiss and the swaggering “I Changed My Mind” clearly pictured a frustrated Cole with her hand on her hips, demanding emotional respect. In contrast, “We Could,” a silky composition, Cole examines the possibility of taking a friendship into the relationship zone.
Fifteen years after its release, The Way It Is is a masterpiece that stands on the strength of hard work and dedication. For a new artist like Cole, with a legacy A&R and producer like Ron Fair backing the project, it couldn’t have been easy to hear that one song after another hasn’t performed well on the charts. Given two singles were issued ahead of the album and neither garnered a major hit for Cole, she and Fair worked the album until something stuck, which was the power ballad “Love.”
While some may call Cole’s sensitivity about a certain rapper remixing her song in an unflattering way a bit much, one can argue that her extremity wasn’t just because she wrote the song. It went much deeper. “Love” is the song that essentially made the world stop and pay attention to a legend in the making. Vocally, Cole wrings out passion and emotion on a throaty-ballad such as this became a signature for Cole and future hits to come like “Heaven Sent” and “I Remember.”
Put simply, Cole’s The Way It Is is an album that does exactly what the title suggests. She doesn’t sugarcoat her feelings about love and relationships. In fact, her rawness and thoughtful executions on the oftentimes draining topics blazed a path for the 15-year veteran to connect with listeners on an identifiable level rather than unrelatable one.
Revisit The Way It Is by Keyshia Cole below.