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Kelly Rowland, ‘Talk a Good Game’ (Republic)

Kelly Rowland about to sign this very album / Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Label: Republic

The first single from Kelly Rowland’s fourth solo album is “Dirty Laundry,” which some shallow listeners have characterized as a Beyoncé-jealousy song. In fact, it’s one of the most important and resonant tracks about domestic violence ever. Sung confessionally enough that Rowland broke down during a recent live performance in Washington, D.C., she sings, “He hittin’ the window like it was me, until it shattered / He pulled me out, he said, ‘Don’t nobody love you but me / Not your mama, not your daddy and especially not Bey’ / He turned me against my sister.” It perfectly encapsulates the textbook move in which abusers manipulate a victim’s self-esteem to shut out caring friends and family, all over a The-Dream-produced beat and piano figure that appropriately evokes James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love.” It’s gutting.

It’s also difficult to imagine it in the context of an album, its rawness sandwiched between pop singles and Mike Will Made It beats. But if Kelly Rowland is good at anything, it’s being bona fide through and through. She’s an extremely likable figure in pop music, more relatable than her goddess-sis Beyoncé, more down-to-earth lyrically than many of her R&B peers. Talk a Good Game is her realness in full flower, an album that balances world-weariness about relationships with infectious dollops of sexual agency, tackling the vagaries of love almost exclusively and offering anthems for experiences that every woman has had (or will have) at some point.

The ballad “Down on Love” precedes “Dirty Laundry” on the track list, a sort of prequel to the deep shit, detailing another man with commitment issues and hoping for someone good enough. “Gone” flips a “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone” hook (Janet Jackson via Joni Mitchell) into a sleeper banger with cloudy synths and a snap beat. “Talk a Good Game” is a dating-standard-setting guide for K-Row’s potential suitors; the awesome “Red Wine” makes good use of her breathiness. “Street Life,” featuring Pusha T, has her getting gritty over a summery, ’70s-funk-meets-2070 Pharrell production — the only song here not directly dealing with matters of the heart, it had better be released as a single before August, and should come with subwoofers as a matter of courtesy. Another banger, “I Remember,” is reminiscent of the Jamie xx beat that powered Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care,” with residual effects of U.K. funky house that make it perfect for Rowland’s British audience, who were holding her down for those first two solo albums when the U.S. was busy gawking at Beyoncé.

Speaking of: Inevitably, Rowland reunites with her girls here, which feels like proof that the jealousy rumors were unfounded. “You Changed” is essentially a classic Destiny’s Child song, but each vocalist gets equal billing: Kelly Rowland, featuring Beyoncé and Michelle Williams. Better than recent trio single “Nuclear,” it’s got a midtempo funk bass line propelling the sisterhood to gang up on an unworthy dude so effectively that it’s the best girl-power break-up song that never dropped in ’99, and that’s no dis: It’s worthy of Destiny Child’s classic catalogue, their chemistry unscathed by time. It also makes sense to put a reunion joint on an album this good: A sliver above 2011’s hit Here I Am, this one shows that even when she’s going through hell, Rowland steps out with sure footing, a girl-next-door who belongs on top.