With legs so long they look like they just walked out of heaven and a face so beautiful it could make a veteran cad turn in his player card, Decatur, Georgia, native Keri Hilson has never exactly had to twist people's arms to get them to want to know her. But why does the world need to know her?
"You need to know me because I may have written your favorite song," she said with a smile, sitting in a Los Angeles recording studio recently. She was getting ready to go around the world with Justin Timberlake and her friend/mentor/debut LP co-producer Timbaland on the European leg of JT's FutureSex/LoveShow.
"If anyone was lucky enough to go to Justin Timberlake's tour, there's a girl, she's, like, gorgeous, and she's on the screen during Tim's set," Hilson said, describing herself in one of her roles on the road.
"I have a couple of rituals," she said of the tour. "I have to have candles [to] set the mood right. I have to have Jolly Ranchers to sing because it's easy to get dry mouth. And Jolly Ranchers for me — actually Now and Laters, too — create so much mucus. Push Ups are the best to get your heart rate up."
Hilson's silhouette may not be the most recognizable yet, but her face is getting plenty of screen time now. Timbaland just released "The Way I Are," the third video from Timbaland Presents Shock Value, and guest star Hilson gets ample exposure in the clip. The record is being used in a new commercial for McDonald's.
"There were levels of discovery for Keri," Hilson said, explaining that her expedition into the music world was well on its way by the time she linked up with the great beat king, Timbaland. "I was blessed to just keep bumping into successful people who could take me higher. Of course I had to step back a few times, but that's life. Things don't always go as planned."
The 24-year-old Hilson started singing at 12, and five years later she was able to pen a record for a Japanese artist coming out of the Sony Music system. In the meantime, she was also connecting with the talent coming from her state, most notably Polow Da Don.
"I would see a cat named Polow at every studio in Atlanta," she recalled. "I didn't know his name or what he did. He actually told Tim about me. He said, 'There's this writer in Atlanta. I don't know if she's still in the artist thing, but I think you should meet her.' "
Tim called, and Hilson sang for him over the phone.
"Tim comes to town and we meet, and that night we all flew back to Miami and worked. We began what Tim said was my 'Cry Me a River,' " she continued. "He said, 'Man, you got some crazy material already. This will be easy — we can bang your album out in two weeks.' "
Two weeks turned into two years, but the wait has been a blessing. While on deck for her solo turn, Hilson has been writing prolifically. Either on her own or as part of the five-person songwriting/production team the Clutch, Hilson has penned tunes for Britney Spears, the Pussycat Dolls, Diddy, Ciara, Usher, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Ruben Studdard, Ludacris ("Runaway Love") and Omarion ("Ice Box").
"The Clutch is a new thing, it's still a baby," she said. "We are responsible for some major hits: 'Ice Box,' 'Take Me as I Am,' 'The Way I Are,' so many. 'Anonymous' by Bobby Valentino, a whole bunch of new artists. Beyoncé ... the Clutch is everywhere. Co-writing makes it a lot faster, and you're more open to other ideas. It opens you up creatively. Everyone brings more color to a certain situation, to a certain song, [which] makes it a lot easier. Sometimes we take it section by section or line by line — it's fun either way. Work is play for us."
Hilson, who is signed to Timbaland's Mosley Music Group, says her debut is a mix of "hard-hitting drums, R&B melodies, some pop elements, even some alternative."
"The album is called In a Perfect World," Hilson said. "It's my way of saying nothing in the world is perfect and no person in it is, either. None of us is exempt from certain hardships and heartbreaks. It was really important for me to write songs that women can relate to from real situations. I didn't want to do an album that painted myself as perfect because no matter how things look, no one is."
Timbaland and Polow produced most of the project, along with Nate "Danja" Hills (see "Britney Spears Collaborator Says Her LP Is 'About Feeling Good, Celebrating Womanhood' ").
"Polow is more hands-on, and Timbaland just kind of leaves," she said of the producers' styles. "Both of them used to baby me when I first got the record deal. They were kind of like, 'Oh Lord, what is she going to do?' I think I earned their trust, more so Tim. He just leaves the studio, and I love it. He gives me the creative freedom that a writer wants.
"Polow gives a lot of input, but it doesn't stunt my creativity," she continued. "He actually has really good ideas, and he's very hands-on with a song. He takes it very seriously. But they are both wild dudes, they are so crazy. They're like the brothers I never had or wanted."
Hilson — who has guest-starred on the most recent albums by Lloyd Banks and Diddy, in addition to Tim's — didn't want too many other people in the booth contributing to her album. Remember, we need to know her.
"I just wanted it to represent who I am," she said. "That was important to me, but we do have Snoop [Dogg] and of course Timbaland. We've got Tank and Justin [Timberlake]. I gave that away. We wrote a few songs together for my album, and one we're very sure will make it. It's so dope. I'm about to say too much. I'm gonna leave some to the imagination, but the song is incredible. You know Justin's writing, and we really clicked. It was very simple, very easy."