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.
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. •