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Cole comfort

It took Mary J. Blige close to a decade before deciding that she didn't want any more drama. Keyshia Cole, a clear inheritor to Blige's no-nonsense, hip-hop-soul throne, seemingly came to that realization by the time she recorded her debut album, The Way It Is.

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On this album, Cole finds an infinite number of ways to say she's fed up with her man and ready to move on, but none more bluntly effective than this chorus from the opening "(I Just Want It) To Be Over": "I don't want to love you/don't want to need you/just want to leave you."

At 21, the Oakland-based Cole is a belter with restraint, with a voice that alternately recalls Alicia Keys and a young Chaka Khan. The Way It Is is comparable to Keys' 2001 debut Songs In A Minor in the way it employs contemporary, sometimes generic production to make a classic soul statement, with mixed results. Cole was certainly ill-served by having the muddy, Kanye West-produced thumper "I Changed My Mind" released as this disc's first single. Not only is the song forgettable, but Cole - whose voice ordinarily brims with presence - is buried in the beat cacophony.

A much more persuasive selection is "I Should Have Cheated," a slow, simmering brooder in which Cole responds to a jealous lover by saying that he accused her of cheating so frequently, she might as well have done the deed. Some singers would put that message across with a teasing arrogance, but Cole conveys an overwhelming, world-weary sadness. More than any track on this promising, uneven collection, it suggests the possibility of nu-soul greatness.

- Gilbert Garcia


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