‘Talk a Good Game’ is Kelly Rowland’s best work – so far

Kelly Rowland is now notorious for extremely long gaps between the release of her studio albums. Her debut, Simply Deep, was rush released in October 2002. Since then, she’s been in anything but a rush to craft her albums. She waited nearly five years to release her sophomore set Ms. Kelly in July 2007. Though, to be fair, there was a Destiny’s Child album and tour in between. It was another four years before her third set Here I Am finally dropped in July 2011. The shortest break between her albums thus far ended when Talk a Good Game was released in June 2013, less than two years after Here I Am. 

Kelly had a lot of pressure riding on her with the release of her fourth studio album. She was coming off her biggest solo hit stateside with “Motivation,” which dominated the R&B charts, perching at #1 for 7 weeks. Not only that, but her collaboration with David Guetta “When Love Takes Over” had taken the entire world by storm two years prior, ushering in the trend of popular R&B and hip-hop stars setting their sights on dance music. Kelly cemented her status as a solo superstar in her own right. She had her own lane. Well, actually, she had two: R&B diva, and dance goddess. Here I Am experienced significant delays due to the dilemma (no pun intended) of how to navigate those diverging yet converging paths.

So, with 2013’s Talk a Good Game, Ms. Kelly made a decision: she would go back to her roots, and make a purely R&B album (with one gorgeous exception). Perhaps that’s why the album came so quickly. Part of the reason was likely the pressure to strike while she was still hot off the success of “Motivation,” but more likely is the fact her renewed focus on R&B made the music pour out organically. Whatever the case, the result was nothing short of stellar.

Talk a Good Game is by far the best body of work Kelly Rowland has released to date. It is a near-flawless, cohesive collection of quality mid-tempo R&B grooves, ballads, and a few up-tempo bops to boot. Musically, it is pristinely produced, perfectly preserving the sonic landscape of contemporary R&B with subtle yet fulfilling throwbacks to the greatness of R&B throughout the decades. Vocally, she shines like never before: her silky, emotive voice glides through verses, lavishly layers itself in the backgrounds, and soars through soulful, sensual ad-libs with crisp clarity. Lyrically, she delves into every aspect of love, from the good, to the bad, to the games. She has always been a confessional sort of singer, but on Talk a Good Game she opened up more than ever before, sharing her most guarded truths. In her catalog, the album is unparalleled.

The set opens with the fearless “Freak.” As the title suggests, the track is a suggestive, dance-floor ready romp that embodies her most forbidden desires into a celebratory anthem of sexual empowerment. The song originally belonged to Jamie Foxx, but Kelly’s version is by far superior. “Everybody’s, somebody’s… freak,” she chants, welcoming us to her world.

Following “Freak” is lead single “Kisses Down Low.” Ironically, it feels the most generic and dated in retrospect all these years later. Clearly molded in the image of “Motivation,” geared toward the mission of achieving the same success as its predecessor, “Kisses” is sensual and unabashedly explicit, with a powerful bass line. It’s certainly a good time, but the album has better offerings.

One of its first throwback moments, “Gone” samples the same Joni Mitchell classic as Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” to craft the perfect break-up bop. Wiz Khalifa provides a sort of comic relief, but the song would soar with or without him. It’s sassy, fun, and fierce.

Beginning with “Gone,” the album seems to go on a journey, encapsulated by the album’s title track, “Talk a Good Game.” One of many standouts on the album, this mid-tempo jam is such an infectious song and really was a missed single opportunity. It’s catchy and relatable, and has a knock to it. The guest verse from song producer and co-writer Kevin Cossom adds hip-hop swag, but surely a remix with a verse from a big name rapper would have made this song a hit on R&B radio. But alas, it remains hidden gem on this sorely underrated album

Kelly follows the realization that it was all a game with the honest confessional, “Down on Love.” It is a moody, ethereal track that takes us into our feelings. We’ve all been there, and Kelly takes us right through it on this moody, masterful R&B mid-tempo.

Her being “Down on Love” leads us to the chilling “Dirty Laundry.” Kelly opened up to the world like never before, airing out feelings she had suppressed, publicly, for so long. She details an emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive relationship she experienced and how it affected her. She admits harboring jealousy toward Beyoncé as a result of having her self-esteem crushed by the vile man she describes. It is a gut-wrenching, soul-bearing song that left listeners in tears. It is truly amazing how an admission of one’s past weaknesses can prove to be so profoundly powerful. With “Dirty Laundry,” Rowland opened a dialogue about abuse that is all too often silenced, long before there was a #MeToo movement for her to join.

Likely to quell any murmurs of animosity between Kelly and Beyoncé as a result of her admissions on “Dirty Laundry,” Kelly follows it with “You Changed,” a collaboration with her Destiny’s Child sisters Michelle and Beyoncé. Opening the track by asking the ladies if they “wanna do it again,” the soulful number is classic your Destiny’s Child girl-power anthem at the expense of a disappointing suitor. Despite having not formally recorded together since 2005, the ladies sounded right at home together on their second reunion track following “Nuclear,” released earlier that same year. Despite it’s subject matter, their unity and harmonies on “You Changed” are heartwarming.

The album’s one dance-inspired moment on the album comes via the gorgeous “I Remember.” It is a reflective R&B ballad laid over a house-inspired beat, that can be hard to listen to if you have recently experienced a painful break-up. Kelly perfectly embodies the emotion of the song, and her delivery will soothe your soul and leave your eyes watery from welling up with tears.

Next up is “Red Wine,” a song whose title is nowhere to be found in its lyrics. Rather, its title comes from the track’s creation: Kelly explained she and her collaborators had a good amount of it while writing the song. It is the perfect soundtrack to go alongside your favorite glass of red. The vibe the song creates is lush and warm, just as red wine makes you feel. The title is actually perfect, but the song is even more so. It is not only a highlight on the album, but a highlight in Rowland’s entire catalogue; hell, in R&B music in general.

Her second song with this same title, “This is Love” number two isn’t quite as good as its predecessor on Ms. Kelly, but nevertheless is an enjoyably slinky mid-tempo with clear, pristine vocals. Seemingly having found love again in the album’s story arc, “Street Life” takes a break from matters of the heart to deliver an energetic, uptempo, Pharrell-produced jam that is slightly socially-conscious, advising us to “tell Obama about the street life,” and boasts an unexpected guest verse from Pusha-T. Honestly, it’s a whole bop, so just get your life.

The standard edition of the album ends with “Stand in Front of Me,” also produced by Pharrell, despite sounding reminiscent of a doo-wop sound akin to what Bruno Mars was doing at the time. It’s the perfect fit for a slow dance… if you don’t mind the slightly naughty implication of its lyrics, anyway. It’s a cute track, but hardly of the quality deserving to close out such a great album. Luckily, the deluxe edition delivers.

The first bonus track, “Sky Walker,” features The-Dream; it’s fun, slightly raunchy, but not outstanding. Luckily, the next two tracks hit us with nearly 10 minutes of back-to-back R&B goodness. First, is “Put Your Name On It,” another standout on the album. Sounding like it was straight out the 90s with its electric guitar, sensual innuendos and soaring, blow-you-away vocals from Kelendria, it is yet another pristine prize to add to her catalogue. Honestly, by the end of it you will be wishing you could put your name on it, or asking someone to put their name on yours.

Similar levels of emotion may arise from deluxe edition closer “#1,” except on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This sassy ballad drags a cheating man through the mud, proclaiming that if Kelly isn’t #1, then he is cancelled. She “won’t play second fiddle,” and forcefully let us all know. And, after listening to this album… only a fool would try and make Kelly Rowland their #2.

Fans who purchased the album from Target were in for a treat with two more bonus tracks, “Feet to the Fire,” a slinky duet with Pharrell and yet another album highlight, “Love Me ‘Til I Die, produced by Drake’s go-to guy, Boi-1da. It certainly has that atmospheric Drake mid-tempo vibe to it, but Kelly puts her own stank on it. Not to mention, her superior vocals only elevate the song to greatness.

In short, if you were to only own one Kelly Rowland album, it needs to be Talk a Good Game (but really, you need them all). In hindsight, it might have benefitted from a shortened and slightly reordered standard track-listing with the weaker reserved for bonus tracks, but I would not want a world without any of these tracks. The album is the perfect example of what she is truly capable of; indeed, it is her most honest artistic expression to date. It has now been five full years since its release, and it still stands as a solid body of work. The anticipation is high for her long-awaited fifth studio album, rumored to be coming out at some point this year. If the quality of Talk a Good Game and her relentless dedication to making sure this next album is perfection are any indication, Kelly only stands to top herself. Until then, enjoy celebrating the greatness that is Talk a Good Game; it stands as her best body of work – so far.

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