As the heels on her brown leather thigh-high boots click on the faint linoleum of the tiles in a tight hallway at the BET Headquarters in Times Square, she is late for her call time, but her stride is even and calm. The staccato of her shoes comes to a sudden halt. “I love your hair,” she says to a staffer, who is delighted at the singer taking notice of her platinum blonde pixie cut. The compliment flows freely and matter-of-factly from K. Michelle, as she uses eye contact to make her genuiness clear. In the midst of what could have been an awkward arrival, the silence was sliced through with kindness. After spending a few moments touching up in the greenroom, she steps into the studio to take photos.
“I love this sweater!” she raves of of her outfit’s beige knit centerpiece while the camera’s shutters becomes the room’s soundtrack. The oversized turtleneck takes its rightful place in her wardrobe for the day, as New York City temperatures hit an uncomfortable November low. Offering soft poses as the photographer asks for varied body language, K. Michelle is measured; a face caress here, a straight-on gaze there. She politely asks to stop shooting to insist on seeing proofs. “This lighting is harsh,” she notes. After a few more shutter ticks, she stops the shoot, so as to not rake up any more unflattering shots. But somehow, even in the midst of taking control, she is still gracious. Almost with the reassurance of a mother or a favorite auntie, she asks the shooter, “You got what you need?” He conceals his disappointment and confirms that he can make the short-lived shoot work. Moments later, the studio is transformed for her sit-down and the glare of LED lights finds the woman of the hour in her natural habitat. She hikes her small stature up onto the director’s chair.
Here I am, really trying to have kids right now, and I’m going through this. Sticking myself every day at 7:22 in the stomach, three times a day.
It has been two years since K. Michelle last shared a slice of her life in the form of a full-length album, and that “transitional phase,” as she calls it, was taxing. Back in September, the R&B crooner took to Twitter to share her journey through simultaneously navigating a lupus scare and news of fertility issues. Laying her pain bare for her one million followers to digest, she wrote, “I kept beating myself up like. Your [sic] being punished by God because you had that abortion. Man talk about a broken spirit.” To this day, she is still visibly emotional at the mention of it all. “That was a scare for me because you know, people pop out babies everyday like it’s nothing! People got babies that they didn’t even mean to have,” she says, both her palms facing forward in agreement. “And here I am, really trying to have kids right now, and I’m going through this. Sticking myself every day at 7:22 in the stomach, three times a day, carrying a syringe through the airport having to have documentation to travel, so I can have a family. It makes you not take this s**t for granted.” Between nearly being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and IVF treatments, there was no shortage of emotions to draw from.
Admittedly adrift in her own personal growth, the ever-relatable singer-songwriter’s aim with her latest work was to convey that she didn’t quite have it “all figured out.” KIMBERLY: The People I Used To Know, her fourth LP, captures a confidently wayward K. Michelle. Though the repairing or severing of external relationships served as the album title’s inspiration, there was also a version of herself that needed to be put to rest. Separating her stage name from her given name, K. Michelle paints the entertainer portion of herself as intensely fragile. “That girl always kind of had some self-esteem issues, but they didn’t get blown up until I feel like the light was on me,” she explains. “And then I started to pick [myself] apart because nothing I did was good enough, or how I looked wasn’t good enough, or how I acted was bad, or anything that I did was wrong in this business. I had the title of ‘villain’ placed on my back regardless.” Kimberly Michelle Pate, however — the more authentic piece of the equation — saw no need to adapt to the expectations of others.
As K. Michelle and Kimberly vacillated to churn out a worthy project, love played its own role in the making of the music. In tandem with rough waters of uncharted struggle, the born and bred vocalist was undergoing another new life experience: healthy love. A self-proclaimed “Female Bachelor No. 1,” K. Michelle was tasked for the first time with removing hurt and heartbreak from the center of her musical orbit. Drawing out her play found her excavating advice from her controversial former sensei, R. Kelly. “R. Kelly taught me as my mentor, ‘You write life and not music, and you’re going to always have a job.’” And with that, her thinking, and her work, was rewired to reflect what was real. “This relationship has kind of made me think more about family and about important things because the business doesn’t care. It’s going to leave for everybody, and what you have to do is make sure you have people around you that really love Kimberly.” One result? “Brain On Love,” a ballad produced by the Grammy Award-winning Eric Hudson, which she refers to as her first “real love song.” But one would be remiss to mistake this newfound tenderness for a lack of s**t-talking.
R. Kelly taught me as my mentor, ‘You write life and not music, and you’re going to always have a job.'
“If you hear something on this album that steps on your toes, just know: The truth only steps on your toes when you've stepped out of line.” Taking it back to her 2012 mixtape 0 F**ks Given, K. Michelle employs her penchant for rap to uncage her aggression. On one lyrical exercise, “Alert,” co-written by Safaree Samuels, the singer trades belting harmonies for spitting bars, audaciously jacking Kendrick Lamar’s nickname in order to set the record straight: “I feel like I gotta let 'em know/Salute me, lil’ b***h, I'm the general!/Uh, sit it down, be humble, this is K. Dot/And I quit, I was never on the choppin' block!” Yet another example of the singer’s retention of boldness can be found in her song “Kim K,” which became a trending topic for her commentary on the Kardashians and their appropriation of Black women’s culture. Taking to Twitter to push the conversation past the frivolous idea of “shade,” K. Michelle made clear her intent. “Truths can be spoken without a shade tree behind them,” she wrote. “For ages Black women have been taught by society that our image isn’t good enough for mainstream or that we need to make changes. I believed them and made SOME of those changes, only 2 regret it.”
Black women and the issues they face is one topic K. Michelle simply refuses to gloss over. As Hollywood scurries to address the influx of sexual assault claims lobbied at some of the most influential men in the industry, the singer abandons political correctness to expose a multi-million-dollar culprit. “I’ve gone through sexual advances, I’ve gone through abuse, I’ve gone through a whole label,” she begins. “When I was on Sony, they told me after I went through abuse, don’t say nothing or I was going to be blackballed. And that was years ago and it still ain’t got no better.” To further illustrate the prejudices against her #BlackGirlMagic demographic, she points out that a Black woman’s assertiveness is often perceived as anger. Barely taking a breath, she then proceeds to paint a poignant picture of her everyday struggle: “Imagine being Black and a woman in a business that is not set up for you to have a thought process or mind.” Let her talk about Black women long enough, and K. Michelle will highlight a laundry list of grievances, one being the lack of Black women in genres they helped to establish, namely country music. Another is the notion that there can only be a few Black women who run music. Naming Jazmine Sullivan, Ledisi and Fantasia as stars who don’t get enough shine, she makes it clear that the lines drawn in the sand for Black female entertainers are etched with limitations in mind.
Imagine being Black and a woman in a business that is not set up for you to have a thought process or mind.
(though she plans to finally drop the country music EP she’s been itching to make), the state of the genre lacks a previously key component: romance. Citing the absence of throwback acts like The Temptations and New Edition, K. Michelle tacks the fate of #BlackLove on to the demise of a worthy score. “We’ve been taught that it’s OK to be a side chick, it’s OK for a man to have five different women. It’s OK, we’re singing about it,” she preaches, looking around the studio for a witness. “It’s OK to be a b***h, it’s OK to sleep with everybody. ‘It’s OK, it’s your body do what you want to do.’ Yeah, it’s your body but you ain’t got but one. What you going to do with it, give it away?” With scarce resources on how to treat a woman, K. Michelle willingly offers her music as a research tool for men. “Men should take an honest perspective from me,” she advises. “I never sugarcoated what it was like to be in a bad relationship, what it was like to be in an abusive relationship. I’ve never lied or sugarcoated it, so if a man wants to push play and see the thoughts of a Black woman and hear it, he could listen to my album.”
For the first time in my life, I realized I have no control.
The cover of her latest Black woman textbook depicts a woman whose head is a flower in bloom. Symbolic of her current state, KIMBERLY: The People I Used To Know ventures from shameless seduction (“Rounds,” “Birthday”), to devastating dysfunction (“Crazy Like You”), to role reversal (“Make This Song Cry”). There’s even a funk-laden profession of vice and virtue (“God, Love, Sex and Drugs”) and a pop-heavy, love-lost anthem (“Run Don’t Walk”). The variety on the 21-track undertaking amply captures a moment of “discovery” for the songstress as she continues on her brave trek to share her personal truths with a world full of strangers. When asked why she trusts the masses with her mess, her answer escapes her mouth before the inflection of the question. “I think you could sleep at night; you sleep better when you not hiding nothing.” With years of critique under her belt, it has become clear who Kimberly needs to please. “If no matter what you do is judged and it’s wrong, you get to the point in your life where you’re like, ‘I just got to like me. I got to be happy with what I did or what I said, and if i’m not happy with it, thatias something you got to deal with, not the world.’”
Channeling the iconically unapologetic likes of Nina Simone and Muhammad Ali, K. Michelle fully intends on continuing to be forthright, citing an upcoming return to reality TV as the next drawing back of the curtain. And with no roadmap on her winding road, Kimberly Michelle Pate is finally settled in her seat as just another passenger on the ride. “For the first time in my life, I realized I have no control,” she admits. “God has a sense of humor and he always tricks me; I never know what’s next. And I’m tired of planning out things and then being so disappointed and discouraged when it doesn’t go my way, that I need to really just let go and just really let it flow for real. So, with this discovery, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t.”