Year in Music: Hot tomboy love

Keyshia Cole fills in pop's blanks

I've been slowly falling out of love with pop in 2007. The ambulance-chasing addictions of the late George W. Bush era are sick. But I've been slowly falling more and more in love with Keyshia Cole.

Not only is Cole the only pop star I care about, but she's also an Oakland-raised inspiration. Not only am I kinda crushed out on her, but I've also been looking to her as an example of how to live better. Cole's sophomore album, Just like You (Geffen), is being outsold by Alicia Keys's As I Am (Sony), but the grade school girls singing "Love" on YouTube understand that Keys's "No One" affectedly imitates the so-raw-it's-off-key stance of Cole's 2005 breakthrough ballad, a diary-true piece of songcraft that brought back Stacy Lattisaw's heyday. Like "Love," Cole's "Fallin' Out" — pop song of the year, hands down — reveals more emotion and insight with each listen.

A major reason: the fills. Those little threaded backing vocals, usually provided by the lead vocalist, define contemporary R&B. Mary J. Blige mastered them on her superb first three albums: check out the soul-wrenching bridge of "Mary's Joint" on 1994's My Life (MCA) to hear how deeply a track's so-broken-it's-frightening heart can be hidden. Cole has studied Blige instead of the narcissistic, self-applauding lesser talents of neosoul. That much was clear at a concert this year when I heard her sing Blige's favorite covers, including fellow Oakland girl Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing." It's more subtly apparent at the end of Just like You's "Give Me More": Cole hums the woebegone final fill of "I Love You," a track from My Life that taps into Billie Holiday's spirit more genuinely than any of the countless weak-peeping chicks who've tried baby pool–shallow impersonations of Lady Day.

The fills are the little treats that reveal themselves on the 25th listen, the new shivers you discover on a song that was already your favorite because of its catchiness. For a lot of contemporary R&B stars, especially the kind who don't need a wig to sport putf8um hair, fills or backing harmonies are a chance to show off and yell. But for early Blige and now for Cole, a fill or a backing harmony is a chance to testify and bring out a whole other side of a song's story. Dig beneath the Pussycat Dolls gloss that executive producer Ron Fair brings to Just like You, and the examples are abundant: the weary and wary "Now you're comin' back this way" she adds just before the chorus of "Didn't I Tell You"; the way her voice picks up intensity with each word of the verse in "Get My Heart Back," a my-life-in-song autobiographical track as stormy as Shara Nelson–era Massive Attack, but deeper; and, most of all, those final moments of "Fallin' Out" right before and after she cries out, "I'm tired of giving my all."

The other thing about Cole that has made me even more of a full-on fan is her BET show. Keyshia Cole: The Way I Is is the black answer to the '70s TV documentary An American Family, the superior PBS prototype of almost all reality TV shows. It brings her together with her sister Nefe and mother Frankie, who has been to prison as many times as Keyshia has ticked off years of her life. Keyshia lets them act out; she keeps a poker face and sports an array of hot tomboy looks while demonstrating a wisdom beyond her years. In one episode she matter-of-factly decides no men should be allowed in the house they share, a pragmatic move that flies in the face of any crossover poses. Over time it's become poignantly clear to me that Just like You's collage cover portrait and title track are addressed to Cole's mother and sister more than to any lover or listener.

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