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Keri Hilson: Pipe Dreams

After years of writing tunes for others, Keri Hilson finally belts out her own words on In a Perfect World

When asking singer-songwriter Keri Hilson, who is on the cusp of her solo debut, about her album she speaks with the poise of a veteran – calm tone, distinct musical vernacular, and mention of an all-star production team. “It’s a good mixture of arrangements, melodies, hard hitting drums, weird sounds, and eeriness,” she retorts while attributing the cohesive tone of her record to sticking with three in-house producers; Timbaland, Polow da Don, and Nate “Danja” Hills. “I didn’t go all name game on my album,” says the Altanta native. “I could have.” Check out the 25-year-old’s dense resume, packed with songwriting creds like Mary J. Blige’s “Take Me As I Am” and “The Way I Are” off of Timbaland’s latest Shock Value, and hear her recall a mind altering car accident and it’s easy to see why her ‘I know the game’ stance is warranted.

“I walked out of a car that was four wheels up and smashed,” she reveals. “I had fallen asleep at the wheel.” While working double duty majoring in theater at Emory College and trying to keep up with the late night music scene, Hilson found herself climbing out of a flipped vehicle bloody armed and bruised. “I was burning it at both ends,” she sighs. “It taught me that you can’t want it at any cost. You have to be realistic about your dream. It’s not about the quantity of time you spend, but the quality of work that you put in.”

An avid writer since the age of 12, Hilson coined tunes for her first group at 14 and her second at 18. Before the second ensemble folded she caught the attention of producer Anthony Dent who recognized her songwriting talents, and refined focus after the accident, and linked her pen and pad with folks like Usher and Ciara. Soon she was sitting down with Polow and before long folks like Jermaine Dupri and Lil Jon were vying for her. “When you’re working like that you meet everyone,” she says. But it was mastermind Timbaland, courtesy of an introduction by Polow, who hooked her. “He didn’t linger,” remembers the sweet-voiced crooner who also writes with songwriting team The Clutch. “Tim called, I sang one song, and he said ‘let’s do it.’ I was on cloud nine!”

Now inked to joint-venture deals with Timbaland’s Mosley Music Group, Polow’s Zone 4 Inc., and Interscope Hilson will release In a Perfect World in August. “I have to dig a lot deeper,” she says of writing for herself. “Keri not only has a distinctive, excellent voice but she’s also a dope writer,” says Danja. Hilson associates her songwriting to that of Babyface. “He wrote heartfelt songs that everyone could relate to,” she says. “That is definitely my approach – mostly love songs.”

With a personal style described as “retro” and “vintage” and musical tastes ranging from Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, Feist, and Bobby Brown – “Tenderoni” is one of my all time favorite songs,” she declares – it makes sense that she’d choose “emotional” and “fun” to depict her debut. “I call it In a Perfect World because everyone has something in their life they would change if they could.” And change is definitely coming upon this songstress, but she’ll assure you she’s ripe for the shift. “I’m ready. I’m focused. I’m glad it’s finally here!”