Warm and confident throughout her second album, Hilson is becoming hard to ignore.
Matthew Horton 2010
Until now, Keri Hilson has had an unwelcome knack of fading into the background, even on her own records. Her biggest hit, 2009’s Knock You Down, saw her overshadowed by a compelling turn from Ne-Yo and typical showboating from Kanye West, and of course she cut her teeth with low-key guest spots on Timbaland tracks, notably taking second billing to Nicole Scherzinger on Scream. It’s a knack that has its merits when Hilson’s penning hits for Pussycat Dolls or Usher, but less helpful when she’s trying to carve a niche for herself in the ever-competitive RnB market. It’ll take more than a few Mosley beats to get noticed when Beyoncé and Rihanna are around.
But Hilson doesn’t want to muscle out any rival divas on No Boys Allowed, her second solo album; it’s a call to action for the ladies, a loose conceptual empowerment piece. If the overall theme gets a bit shaky here and there, it’s still a neat enough idea that allows Hilson to take centre stage and reveal something about herself, her vulnerabilities, and her sense of humour. Nowhere is this clearer than on impossibly lovely single Pretty Girl Rock, where Hilson manages to rhyme "Keri… very… derri-ere" without getting her tongue permanently lodged in her cheek, and deftly turns some "I’m beautiful" vanity into a girls-against-the-world anthem. She fronts up more aggressively on the deranged The Way You Love Me and Buyou’s ragga-rap kiss-off to "broke boys" – if it wasn’t for some smoochy slow jams, men might feel a little alienated (that album title’s obviously no afterthought), but it’s good to hear some attitude nonetheless.
Those slower, more conciliatory tracks house some of the nicer touches, with Timbaland’s splendid production to the fore. On Breaking Point, he tempers shrill En Vogue-y harmonies with an oriental music box refrain, while on Beautiful Mistake he complements Hilson’s smooth vocal with the sort of splashy, juddering synths that take you right back to Thriller. The John Legend co-penned All the Boys sees Hilson’s teary, cracked tones caressed by tinkling jazzy piano, a small but inventive embellishment that lays bare the fault lines between No Boys Allowed and its more ordinary predecessor, In a Perfect World…
This sparky album keeps on catching the ear like this, and Hilson is in warm, confident voice throughout – much more of this and she’ll be hard to ignore.