Few singers today possess that down-home soul our parents loved, but Kelly Price’s powerhouse vocals are as real as they come. Should you allow Price to share the secret for her talent, she’ll admit to gospel roots instilled in her by a family of preachers and singers. Of course that didn’t stop Price from belting out the late nineties R&B anthem of betrayal “Friend of Mine,” which dealt with a creeping husband and scorned woman’s best friend. As her first gospel album, “This Is Who I Am,” earns acclaim, Price sits down with ESSENCE.com to talk about secular versus gospel music, being “too fat” to sell records, and why she still breaks bread with R. Kelly.

ESSENCE.COM: Ms. Kelly, it’s been too long! We miss you and that heavenly voice. Your gospel album, “This Is Who I Am,” has been quite successful. Does this mean that you’ve left secular music behind?
KELLY PRICE: No. I did a gospel album because I felt like it was time. In fact, I believe everyone who knew me always expected me to do a gospel album. Each of my albums always had a gospel song at the end, so I’ve never hidden the fact that I grew up in the church and come from a family of preachers. Doing a gospel album was totally natural.

ESSENCE.COM: Do you feel that singing R&B music compromises your faith?
PRICE: I’m probably one of the few R&B artists who believe that singing secular music has nothing to do with my faith. I know some traditionalists might disagree, but I feel like my job is my job and what I believe is what I believe.

ESSENCE.COM: Preach! I understand and appreciate the belief that what you feed your spirit can make it foul—and much of today’s music has an unbearable stench. However, at the end of the day, it’s not just music or any one thing that makes man immoral but when we practice it and choose it as a lifestyle, that’s dangerous.
PRICE: You’re right. You have people from all different walks of life, and if a hip-hop or R&B artist, teacher or doctor decides they are going to live a crooked life, that person simply has no moral standing or conscience. So I respect everyone’s opinions—negative and positive. I like to tell my critics and detractors who might question my singing secular and gospel music that I choose to sing love songs because everybody knows God is love.

ESSENCE.COM: In this industry, you must develop a thick skin. How long did it take you to learn to ignore the naysayers?
PRICE: In the very beginning of my career I didn’t really care what other people thought, but I was worried about my grandparents, because they are traditional and I always wanted them to have faith in my personal decisions. When I was singing background vocals for a lot of artists, my grandparents weren’t happy, because when they were growing up, they equated rock ‘n’ roll with sex and drugs and all they knew is that I was involved in the music business and headed down the same road filled with wild parties. But one Sunday morning, about ten years ago, my grandfather stood before the church and said he no longer questioned my ability to be true to myself because he witnessed firsthand that I never allowed my job to affect the person that I am. I still uphold the same standards and beliefs I was taught as a child.

ESSENCE.COM: Has there ever been a time in your career that you felt your faith was compromised?
PRICE: Never. Throughout my career, I have always said I want to be able to bring my work home, so if I sing a song that I can’t play in front of my children or grandmother with a clean conscience, then I won’t do it. And remember I was the Hip-Hop Hook Queen. I sang with everyone including Puffy, Mase, Lil’ Kim, Rakim, YoYo and MC Lyte. There was never a time that they asked me to do something that would make me step away from who I AM as a person.

ESSENCE.COM: It’s the respect you commanded by carrying yourself positively. It’s been said that gospel singers are some of the world’s best singers. How has the genre nurtured your vocal prowess and career overall?
PRICE: I love and appreciate gospel music. I really owe the singer that I am to gospel music. Everybody in my family is a singer. Gospel music was what I learned and I’ve never had any professional singing lessons. It’s still one of the purest forms of music other than country and hip-hop, because they always deliver lyrics that get at the heart of a situation, and I can always appreciate that kind of raw emotion.

ESSENCE.COM: Indeed there’s nothing like raw soul. So as a wife and mother of two do you consider yourself a homebody?
PRICE: No, I grew up in Edgemere (housing) projects in Far Rockaway, Queens. I was always between there and South Jamaica, two of the roughest neighborhoods, but I was a church kid. I had street smarts growing up in the projects, but at the end of the night when everyone else was heading to some club or after-party while on tour, I was heading back to the hotel. I just went and did my job and I never wanted anyone to ever say that I did anything else other than what I was hired to do.

ESSENCE.COM: Frequenting industry events is a way to end up on the gossip blogs. Speaking of which, what is the craziest rumor you’ve heard about yourself?
PRICE: When I started losing weight people said I had surgery, but if they really paid attention, I lost my weight gradually over a couple of years. It wasn’t like I went from being big to small. Heck, I’m still not small and I’m never going to be small. Everyone in my family is big. I fluctuate between 14 and 18, depending on the time of the year and how much soul food I eat (laughs).

ESSENCE.COM: In retrospect, is there anything in your life you wish you could edit?
PRICE: Not one thing. As far as my career is concerned, even during my early years in the industry, running all over New York for producers when they were not paying me, I wouldn’t even change that because I know I was going through the college of the industry. I learned so much about hard work and every job that could possibly be done to put an album together.

ESSENCE.COM: Ron Isley was only one-third of the dynamic trio that made the remix of “Friend of Mine.” Do you still keep in touch with R.Kelly who produced the song?
PRICE: Absolutely, I still keep in touch with him. I was with him just a few months ago. We still break bread together. What I always tell folks is, “You might know R. Kelly but I know Robert.” I treat him no differently than I would any other friend who is going through a hard time that I would call to talk to and encourage. Everybody needs those people in their lives. I don’t ever need to advertise my friendship with him because we each know who we are to one another and it’s always going to be that way between us unless he says, “Kelly, I’m sick of you.” I’ve known him since the beginning of my career when he called up Puffy and asked him, “Who is that girl who writes on all these songs? Can you put me in touch with her?” and we’ve been cool ever since.

ESSENCE.COM: There was a time that you and Ron Isley were in a public legal battle. Have you two reconciled?
PRICE: We’ve been on good terms for years. I spoke to him just before he went to serve his sentence (for tax evasion). Even when he and I had just come through that whole situation I always made it known that I had nothing but love and respect for him. Unfortunately, our issue couldn’t be resolved without third parties. Thankfully, we finally resolved it outside of the court. He is like my daddy in the industry. He believed in me when everyone else kept telling me I was too fat to be successful in the music business.

ESSENCE.COM: Obviously they were wrong. But did you begin losing weight under pressure from your label?
PRICE: No, not at all. By that time, as you said, I’d proved my point that people love good music that touches them at the heart. I’d enjoyed some level of success with “Friend of Mine.” I lost weight because I wanted to be healthier and was scared straight once my mother and mother-in-law had breast cancer, and I thought, I don’t want to die! Ironically, this all happened around the time that Big Pun and I were meeting in the studio and he told me how he was trying to lose weight so he could live healthier and then he died. At the end of the day, I had to ask what is the point to live life so prosperous and have it cut short because I wasn’t able to discipline myself. That’s like slapping God in the face and saying, “Thank you, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing even though I have the knowledge to know how to do it better.”