This Week's Main Pick

Artist: Shanell

Holding It Down For: Young Money

Mixtape: Shut Up and Listen

Real Spit: Young Money singer Shanell has been inspired by challenges almost her entire life. She grew up encouraging and battling her sister, former Danity Kane singer D. Woods, in songwriting.

"It was me, my sister, and we have an older brother," Shanell said on a recent trip to NYC. "We used to watch him. He did music before either one of us. He did television, movies, and we used to run around the house singing his songs, until we started writing our own. It was friendly competition between me and my sister, because we would always help each other and challenge each other.

"I been real nice with the pen game," she added with a smile. "I was good when I started, and I got better and better and better."

While on the road with her sister during Danity Kane's tour in support of their debut LP, Shanell, who used to be a backup dancer, crossed paths with Ne-Yo. She was writing to a track, and he asked if he could use it for his album. The song turned out to be "Say It" from Ne-Yo's Because of You. Ne-Yo eventually invited the singer — who went to a performing-arts high school — to be down with his camp as a songwriter.

"It was really a great learning experience," she said. "[Ne-Yo] listens to all different types of music. I know he sat me down one time and was like, 'That's great, but try to say all that in three lines.' I was like 'a challenge.' So my writing has been influenced a lot by him."

Shanell said she decided to join Young Money because, whereas Ne-Yo's attention was on her writing skills, Wayne saw her as a performer.

"Wayne was kinda like, 'You do this. Keep your music for yourself. You have the talent, I see what you do. You can come over here with Young Money and do what you do over here,' " Shanell said. "Which was the best situation I can be in. My music is a little bit different. It's not R&B, it's not pop, it's not rock, it's not alternative. It's a fusion of everything. A lot of labels don't let you do that, but at Young Money, they let you do that."

Wayne also gave her the freedom to take several minutes from the America Most Wanted tour to showcase her skills. She had a mini-set within Wayne's set last summer.

"It was great," she said. "I brought dancers in. I did a lot of staging and choreographing. I loved that he believed in me enough to do that."

Shanell said her debut LP won't be out until sometime next year, but she did just drop the mixtape Shut Up and Listen. If you have a physical copy of the disc and look inside, you'll see a baby carriage filled with headphones and other musical items. That is a playful middle finger to the rumors that she was having Lil Wayne's baby.

"I'm trying to take a negative thing and make a positive," 'Nell said, who added that she was never romantically involved with Wayne. "That's another reason I put this mixtape out, because a lot of people haven't heard what I do. It's all these rumors flying, that's all they hear. So it's here, this [mixtape] is my baby, this is what I've been sitting in the studio every night working on. This is my baby. This is what I've been pregnant with for the past nine months. So we're just trying to take a bad rumor and turn it into something positive."

What did Weezy think of the rumors that he had knocked up his artist? "We never talked about it," the singer insisted. "Nobody ever talks about the negative stuff. We're too busy making records. We get on the stage and perform, we get in the studio, we're on the radio every day."

Joints to Check For

» "Hair Down My Back." "That is my ladies-anthem song," she explained. "It's a fun record. It's about when you go to the store, you see the 14 inches, you see the 12 inches. For women to wear it, call it out. You don't have to be ashamed. Nowadays, everybody knows girls wear weaves. Wear it as long as you want, as short as you want. I would say it's kinda pop/R&B. It's talking about extensions, but it's still a club beat. I don't think I'll hear it in Club Crucial in Atlanta, but I think it will reach a vast amount of people."

» "Tell Me" (featuring Jae Millz). "Millz actually thought about that, brought it to me, like, 'I wanna do this Groove Theory record over,' " Shanell said. "I tried to sing it just like [Amel Larrieux]. I did the verse just like her and redid the bridge. It's a feel-good record, and it's a classic. I was a young'n [when the original came out]. It reminds me of the picnics in the park, sitting on the bleachers watching the boys play basketball in the park."

» "Hear Me Calling." "The music takes you from one end of music to the next. I wanted to ease people in," she said about why she started her mixtape out with that song. "It's a chill record. It feels good. It's where I started, subject matter-wise. As the music transforms to the other side, which is the last record, that's my growth and all the different types of music I listen to. I can go from here to there — that's what I wanted to show people. [I'm singing about] life and memories, things that remind me of my 'hood where I grew up: the corner store, the duplex, the white lines on the sidewalk."

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