By Michael Griffith
As if single-handedly saving R&B from imminent demise wasn’t enough, Kelly Rowland, lately of Destiny’s Child, has given us the most honest pop song of, um, ever. Over the past few years she has bridged dance (When Love Takes Over, Commander, Down For Whatever), soul (Keep It Between Us, Rose Colored Glasses) and sex (Motivation, Lay It On Me, Kisses Down Low, I.C.E.) in a series of moderately successful hits, become an X-Factor judge (in the UK and now in the US) and shown Beywulf that black wigs, not blonde ones, are the flyest.
Now, as Beyoncé gets defensively self-referential on Bow Down/I Been On (“I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world…/This my shit, bow down bitches”), hemorrhaging pop credibility, Miss Kelly gets real. In Dirty Laundry, the first single from her new album, Talk a Good Game, she sings about being jealous of Bey, and being abused, in the confessional style of 90s R&B. Where Bey doth protest too much, trying to prove her shit (“But don’t think I’m just his little wife”), Miss Kelly hits a nerve—and the right note—by being effortlessly honest (“While my sister was on stage, killing it like a motherf-cker/I was enraged, feeling it like a motherf-cker”). Somehow, Kelly’s truth feels more feminist than Beyoncé’s bravado. Girls don’t run the world, but they should. Dirty Laundry is what you do before taking over—in a hot leotard.
The video is an amniotic, hot-and-cold meditation on loss, pain, resentment. All the tropes of the heartbreak video are here: foetal saunas, endless water tanks, a dramatized dinner table fight. But Kelly is not singing to her man, who is a shadow. Beyoncé’s image is conspicuously missing. Like the best R&B, Dirty Laundry is a dialogue in the self. Part of Kelly thinks the tears won’t end (“When you’re soaked in tears for years, it never airs out/When you make pain look this good it never wears out”), but another part does, and their spin cycle makes for great pop. Hitting a nerve and making us move, if only to nod our heads.