by Javier E. David
It's perhaps appropriate that Keyshia Cole's third and most recent album is entitled "A Different Me". Judging by her appearance Saturday night at Pier Six Concert Pavilion in Baltimore, Maryland for her nationwide tour, this is indeed a newer, more improved artist than the one who debuted a scant five years ago.
Ms. Cole's excellent, kinetic performance - complemented by her raw, emotive voice magnified by the Amphitheater-like venue on Baltimore's Inner Harbor - appeared to put any remaining skeptics on notice that she is separate and distinct from the crop of urban female singers often cannibalized by the music business.The singer warmed up the crowd with her first hit single, "I Changed My Mind", which featured Kanye West on the album but who did not appear at the concert. Ms. Cole proceeded to weave together a highly entertaining medley of songs that drew most heavily from her sophomore album "Just Like Me." Her songs, including the crowd pleasing "Let it Go" (sans collaborators Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim), the upbeat "Shoulda Let you Go" and the power ballad "I Remember", were performed vignette-style in a way that tantalizes the listener, but sufficient enough to inspire audience participation.
Ms. Cole's performance in Baltimore was the hallmark of a singer who is clearly coming into her own. She knows how to work the stage with verve, throwing in a few diva-esque flourishes for effect: she punctuated her performance with a few costume changes and a brief intermission that featured solo performances by her two talented back-up singers. Though the large video screen hovering above the stage was somewhat of a distraction, Ms. Cole completely owned the stage with both her singing and dance moves, in a way few young artists can emulate.
In fact, the temptation to compare Ms. Cole to her fellow Imani/Geffen label-mate and reigning R&B powerhouse, Mary J. Blige, is near-irresistible. Both women draw power from the recurring themes of love and heartbreak throughout their songs, which serve as manifestos of female empowerment. Admittedly, Ms. Cole doesn't occupy the same strata as Ms. Blige (though to be fair, virtually no other contemporary female singer does), but her voice has its own distinctive, edgy timbre that alternates in its ability to project vulnerability, strength, and sexiness without vulgarity.
Despite the fact that she was the headliner, Ms. Cole's performance seemed almost too brief, given the length of time spent on stage by her co-billers, Bobby Valentino, Keri Hilson and The Dream. Mr. Valentino's thin-voiced crooning and shirtless antics got the attention of the females in the audience, while the men looked on in bored silence. Ms. Hilson - perhaps best known for singing the hook on Timbaland's hit "The Way I Are" and who's collaborated with Britney Spears and Usher - provided passable yet undistinguished entertainment with songs from her newly-released album. The Dream gave a vulgar, unfocused and overly-long performance that suggests he might be better off behind the scenes rather than in front of them.
By the time Ms. Cole closes out the show with selections from "A Different Me", featuring a surprise appearance by Monica on the ballad "Trust", she appears to be living the words of her song "Make Me Over". Wearing a form-fitting gold dress and an elaborate coif to match, Ms. Cole sings: "Make me expensive, make me high price, And when you done, oh I wanna be right." However expensive and high price she might claim to be, seeing Ms. Cole live is well worth the cost of admission.
Javier E. David is a native New Yorker and a contributor to HipHopRepublican.com. He writes about various subjects including popular culture, entertainment, business, finance and public policy for sites such as Parcbench.com and Examiner.com. He is a U.S. Army veteran who has worked on Wall Street and as a reporter for the international news agency Reuters. Fluent in Spanish, Javier is an avid sports fan and enjoys literature, music (especially independent hip-hop and soul), movies, good food and wine, and is also a self-confessed comic-book geek.