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Known throughout her career for her raspy soprano voice and intensely expressive performance style, Keyshia Cole became one of the most successful R&B artists to emerge in the mid-2000s. With The Way It Is (2004), the singer, songwriter, and producer came across as a Bay Area equivalent to Mary J. Blige, singing about romantic turmoil with streetwise urgency and candor, but she set herself apart with her second and third platinum albums, Just Like You (2007) and A Different Me (2008), risk-taking sets that produced a total of seven Top Ten R&B/hip-hop singles, plus four Grammy nominations for the former. As Cole lengthened her streak of Top Ten albums with Calling All Hearts (2010), Woman to Woman (2012), and Point of No Return (2014), the field of singers bearing her influence -- such as K. Michelle and Teyana Taylor -- continued to grow. Cole has since released her seventh album, 11:11 Reset (2017), and entered the 2020s as an independent artist with "I Don't Wanna Be in Love" (2021).
Cole, born Keyshia Myeshia Johnson, aspired from an early age to make music her life. The native Oaklander started working the angles while still a preteen, including recording with fellow Bay Area resident MC Hammer. Near the end of the '90s, her singing aspirations began to take flight, aided by mentor D'wayne Wiggins (of Tony! Toni! Toné!). Cole soon appeared on the remix of Messy Marv's "Nubian Queen" and the Wiggins-produced soundtrack for the independent film Me & Mrs. Jones. She contemplated a move to Los Angeles following those early opportunities in the Bay, so when she discovered that her then-boyfriend had cheated on her, she headed downstate and never looked back.
In Los Angeles, she quickly impressed A&M president Ron Fair, who signed her to a solo deal. Cole made her debut with the Eve collaboration "Never," produced by Fair and Erroll "Poppi" McCalla, Jr. for the soundtrack of Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Based on Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" -- coincidentally a hit the year Cole was born, 1981 -- the track entered Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart in February 2004 and peaked at number 71. Nine months later, she struck again with the lead single from her debut album. "I Changed My Mind," written with John Legend and co-producer Kanye West, became a breakthrough hit. It peaked at number 23 on the R&B/hip-hop chart and cracked the Hot 100. Cole charted again with another preview, "(I Just Want It) To Be Over," and finally offered her first LP, The Way It Is, in June 2005. The set affirmed that she had a streetwise edge over the vast majority of her contemporary R&B peers, that she had more in common with the likes of Mary J. Blige, Monica, and Jaheim than with Ciara, Beyoncé, and Mario. The Way It Is missed the top of the R&B/hip-hop chart by only one position, peaked at number six on the Billboard 200, and spawned two more big singles, "I Should Have Cheated" and "Love," emotional outpourings that went Top Ten R&B/hip-hop and became Top 40 hits. The Way It Is and "Love" eventually earned platinum certifications from the RIAA.
Cole made memorable appearances on Diddy's Press Play ("Last Night") and R. Kelly's Double Up ("Best Friend") before she offered the follow-up, Just Like You, in September 2007. Released through Geffen, where she joined Ron Fair, Just Like You was another smash, topping the R&B/hip-hop chart and entering the Billboard 200 at number two. Its release coincided with a BET reality series of the same name. The album and two of its four major singles, specifically the early-'80s throwback Missy Elliott and Cainon Lamb collaboration "Let It Go" (number one R&B/hip-hop, number seven pop) and the ballad "Heaven Sent" (number one R&B/hip-hop, number 28 pop), were nominated for a combined total of four Grammy Awards, all in the R&B field.
In December 2008, just after season two of Cole's BET show began, Cole issued her third album, the relatively upbeat and pop-oriented A Different Me. As with her previous LP, it narrowly missed the top of the Billboard 200. Like the first two, it went platinum, driven by the Top Ten R&B/hip-hop singles "Playa Cardz Right" (featuring 2Pac), "You Complete Me," and "Trust" (featuring Monica). In 2010, the same year in which she gave birth to her and professional basketball player Daniel Gibson's son, she released her fourth set, Calling All Hearts, which despite no major prelude singles entered the Billboard 200 at number nine upon its December arrival. Separated from Ron Fair, who had left his position at Geffen, Cole continued with Woman to Woman. The November 2012 release was dedicated to her fans, who came through by making it Cole's fifth consecutive Top Ten R&B/hip-hop and pop album.
Cole then moved laterally again to Interscope (like A&M and Geffen, a label distributed by Universal) for the similarly successful Point of No Return. Her third number one R&B/hip-hop album (and sixth Top Ten pop LP), it was released in October 2014. Two of the hottest producers at the time, DJ Mustard and Mike WiLL Made-It, contributed to the album, as did Cole inspiration Faith Evans. Free from Interscope, Cole moved to another major label, the Sony-distributed Epic, for the 2017 album 11:11 Reset, preceded by a handful of ballads, including "You." Although none of its singles charted, "You" and a handful of other cuts amassed streams in the millions. Cole returned in early 2021 with the independently issued "I Don't Wanna Be in Love," which reunited her with Ron Fair as co-producer. ~ Andy Kellman