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“Keep your head up, ladies,” said Keyshia Cole as she left the stage of Manhattan’s Nokia Theatre on Sunday night, and the ladies roared back assurance that they would do so.
Dressed in white short-shorts, white vest and stiletto heels and flaunting a new blond haircut, Cole could easily pass for any member of her fan base, with whom she enjoys an unusually symbiotic relationship. When she told the overwhelmingly female crowd (with the occasional man in tow) that she really loved them, she sounded sincere.
The crowd returned the sentiment by happily singing along with every one of her robust hip-hop soul tunes, often filling in the words while she paused to wiggle her hips and swing one arm theatrically.
Cole makes unabashedly aspirational music, with lush basslines and champagne keyboard hooks that recall the late-1990s blingy heyday of Puff Daddy (as P. Diddy was then known) and Bad Boy Records. But thanks to her rough edges and lack of self-consciousness, it is the kind of aspiration for which you root. She came off as endearing rather than ambitious when she listed her achievements – a new album, Just Like You, due out next month; a second season of her reality TV show, The Way It Is; and gracing the cover of Essence magazine – and her desire to headline arena shows next year.
Cole’s voice might not be as powerful as that of Mary J. Blige, who is regarded as the Bad Boy queen, but her tales of love won, lost, stolen and avenged are equally dramatic. You sense she would be quite happy to be thought of as Blige’s younger, pluckier sibling, and she courts the Bad Boy connection. Her new single, “Let It Go”, uses a sample favoured by the label star Biggie Smalls on one of his biggest hits, and includes a guest verse from Smalls’s one-time girlfriend, Lil’ Kim.
Kim, who has done jail time in recent years, set off hysteria when she showed up with Missy Elliott for a couple of verses. The trio tore through a louche, rowdy version of “Let It Go”, then shared hugs on stage – a fitting end to a true ladies’ night.