Bridget Kelly Shares How Jay Z's Demand For Excellence Impacts Her Music
Exclusive: Roc Nation's Bridget Kelly explains how releasing an album is like giving birth and why she, Miguel & Weeknd are R&B "game changers."
Given his immense success with non-Rap ventures such as Roc Nation Sports and D’ussé cognac to name a few, it’s easy to forget that one of Jay Z’s initial business forays outside of him actually rapping wasn’t exactly a smash. In 1997 and 1998 Roc-a-fella Records—under the direction of Jay Z, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke—released two R&B projects from the group Christion. The group’s 1997 album, Ghetto Cyrano, peaked at the #147 spot on Billboard magazine’s Hot 200 albums chart. Christion’s 1998 single, “I Wanna Get Next To You” suffered a similar fate when it bowed out of Billboard’s “Hot 100” after peaking at the #86 spot.
So why is all of this relevant in 2014? Well, Jay is doubling down on his R&B efforts after introducing songstress Bridget Kelly into the fold via previously signing her to his Roc Nation imprint.
“It’s always been this feeling of support and synergy within the label,” Kelly says of the higher ups at Roc Nation. “What they pride themselves on is attaching their brand to things that they really, really believe in and support passionately. So I feel like now that I’m on that list, it’s exciting, to have that kind of support.”
With all due respect to Kenni Ski and Allen Anthony (we really liked “Full Of Smoke”), Kelly comes to the new iteration of the Roc much more accomplished. The LaGuardia High product wrote Kelly Clarkson’s 2011 single, “Einstein,” from the Grammy Award-winning album, Stronger. On the heels of her Cut To…Bridget Kelly EP release, Roc Nation’s first lady of R&B dishes on the four-year process of crafting her album—a process she compared to giving birth.
Why Bridget Kelly Named Her Album, “Something Different”
HipHopDX: Since you’re a native New Yorker, what differences have you seen between New York and Los Angeles?
Bridget Kelly: I don’t think it’s very different. I think the intentions in New York and L.A. are the same, but I think the approach is different. In New York, if somebody doesn’t mess with you, they’ll tell you in a heartbeat, “I don’t like you. I’m here because of this, but I don’t like you—just so you know.” Here it’s kind of like, “Hmmm, I’m just going to smile in your face just in case there’s a camera and there’s someone else around.” And we’ll play it cool, as opposed to just keeping it trill. But overall, the industry is the industry, so it doesn't really matter what coast you’re on. I still gotta play politics, and I still gotta grin and bare it sometimes. But you know, what are you going to do?
DX: Artists are always talking about doing something fresh and differentiating themselves. What do you mean by naming your project, Something Different?
Bridget Kelly: I like the idea of saying something different as opposed to using the word like “fresh,” which is like categorizing it. It’s like when you’re creative and everything that you think you write and put together or produce is a smash. The word “smash” is completely overused. It’s like, “Yeah, well I just wrote a smash.” For me, making an album and calling it Something Different just means that there’s a distinction between whatever I’m saying and doing and everything else. That’s not to necessarily generalize whether it’s good or bad, or ugly or, better, but it really is just different. And I think it’s taken me so long to put the album together that now the sonics are very weird. Some of it is classic R&B, some of it is a little more alternative and some of it is a little more emo. But I think overall there’s going to be at least one song for everybody on there, which I think is very different. So even though it will be called an R&B album, I think some alternative fans are still going to be into it.
DX: Was it a strategic decision to try to have something for everyone?
Bridget Kelly: Yeah, I think so. In the beginning, I made really angry girl music. On my EP, it was really all about setting people on fire, killing people and trying to just make my voice heard…let my story be told. But now, I think it's much more about relatability. And now that I’ve gotten to go on tour, reach out to more of my fans and see where they’re coming from and see what they relate to the most, it’s crucial for me to be able to speak from the female and male perspective in a relationship as opposed to just the angry, love-scorned woman.
DX: You’re speaking for the guys out there?
Bridget Kelly: I’m trying…a little bit.
How The Male/Female Dynamic Surfaces In Bridget Kelly’s Music
DX: What does a guy’s perspective in a relationship sound like to you?
Bridget Kelly: I don’t take myself too seriously, and there’s kind of this weird stigma with R&B singers that we’re supposed to just hate men and men suck. It’s like we get hurt, and then we just turn against everybody forever. And I’m not that way at all. I have a song on my record called “Shit Happens,” and essentially it’s just saying, “Look, I know you’re going to fuck up. I know you’re probably going to do a whole bunch of things that I’m probably not going to approve of. But I’m letting you know that I'm aware of it. And I’m gonna to be a G about it, so make sure you cover your tracks.” Shit happens. If you make a mistake, learn from it, and don’t let it happen again.
DX: Is that like Mario Winans with “I Don’t Wanna Know?”
Bridget Kelly: No, that’s not that at all. I’m saying that I do know ahead of time. I know exactly what’s going on, because woman’s intuition is always on point. If you slip up and you apologize, I will forgive and I will accept the apology. If you make it a habit, then there’s going to be other repercussions that are not going to be discussed [laughs]. But I’m definitely a hopeful, optimistic, romantic kind of girl. So even in moments where I’m hurt, confused, scared or I’m vulnerable, I still feel like, “Nah, I’m gonna to still be cool. I’m still going to have a little bit of an ego and pride.” A lot of times—at least in my experience with relationships—that’s the biggest downfall for a man: his pride.
DX:Your music has always been conversational and personal. On “Special Delivery,” you say, “I wrote a goodbye letter today.” Did “Shit Happens” come from a personal experience?
Bridget Kelly: Absolutely. I think at the end of the day as women, we typically tolerate a certain standard of things because we feel like if we don't, then it makes us wrong or it makes us harsh. [We think] at some point in time, it will come back around to bite us in the ass as opposed to making a really convicted decision like, “No, fuck it. You’re wrong, I’m right, and that’s it. It’s over.” Although maybe sometimes in our heads we wish we had the balls to do that, I think a lot of times we still tolerate some shit that we should not be tolerating. But we do it, nonetheless, so I had to make sure I had a song about it.
DX: I appreciate you sharing that. I think a lot of guys want that type of honesty…
Bridget Kelly: The thing is as women, we can’t always tell all our secrets. That’s kind of one of those secrets that we’re not supposed to tell. Chances are that if we’re in love with you, you’re probably going to get away with murder. We’re probably going to tolerate a lot more than we say we’re going to tolerate. But just don’t push it a step too far, ‘cause there’s always that crazy thin line. That’s where I’m at. There’s always a very thin line between me and crazy.
Bridget Kelly Compares Her Recording Process To Therapy Sessions
DX: Before we started, you described making this album as being in labor for four years. What made it so challenging?
Bridget Kelly: When I started, I was unclear about my musical direction. I think I wanted it to be really rock infused and angry like Pink, Alanis Morissette and Jazmine Sullivan. It was a “bust the windows out your car” type of approach. After really soul searching and being in studio sessions—which were kind of like my therapy sessions—it was very evident to me that I was leaving out a lot of parts of the story. Those parts were really crucial to my own coping, not even necessarily pertaining to the project, but just in life. I felt like, “If I can only talk about being angry, I’m not talking about how hurt and disappointed I am. I’m not talking about how insecure this has now made me feel about my own womanhood.” If I couldn’t talk about that kind of stuff, then what would be the point? I would only be telling half the story.
So I really had to dig deep, figure out how I felt, and also really determine how much of that I was going to give into my project. That’s probably why it’s taking as long as it’s taken. There’s also a matter of making sure all the songs are congruent. I wanted everything to flow a certain way. I didn’t want it to just be, “OK, we have nine songs about hating love, three songs about loving love, and then we have one song that's kind of like, ‘Eh, I don’t know.’” So wanted to make sure there’s an actual story people can follow and can relate to.
I compare it to pregnancy only because I know women who’ve been pregnant and they get to their last trimester, and it’s like the home stretch. Everything’s swollen, you feel fat, and you’re like, “Ugh, just get it out!” That’s how I feel now. I’m just ready to put the album out.
DX: Congratulations, cheers. We know you personally went through a change, and we also know you wanted to represent a lot of different perspectives. What’s left? The record itself is finished?
Bridget Kelly: No, I’m completely done. I sort of made a mental list in my head about what I wanted to talk about and touch on in the album, and I felt like it gave me a little bit of an outline. That’s hard to do when you’re an artist, because you don’t necessarily want to be put in a box. But there still has to be some kind of order applied to the process, otherwise it’s just a free for all, and you have a compilation of 300 songs that may or may not fit. So I made it a point to really find records and references I could really express in the record. Now I have about 13 or 14 songs that are just the culmination of my relationships in the last three years.
DX: One of the things that you mentioned last time we spoke was that as your professional career elevated, your personal life turned…
Bridget Kelly: Fell apart…destroyed.
DX: Is that still the case? You’re running. Do you have time to engage in some of the emotions you describe in the album?
Bridget Kelly: I’m in a relationship now, and I’m happy in my relationship. I think it’s taken me a while. I think I’ve always been one foot in one foot out, because my career does take so much of my time, energy, space and my money. Everything I do really just boils to where my career’s at right now. But I’m blessed, and lucky because I have a guy that understands that for at least the next couple years—until we strike gold, have millions of dollars and can kind of kick back for a week—he’s very supportive of the process and what I love. He doesn’t have a vocal problem of being number two for now and having my career be number one. I think it’s rare to find that, but he’s also my best friend. That’s the other part of it that’s lucky. As soon as I get off the road, I want to hang out, sit home on the couch, put my glasses on and just be in sweatpants for a little while.
How An Open Dialogue At Roc Nation Has Helped Bridget Kelly
DX: Roc Nation doesn’t feel like a crowded label, but everyone seems to do well. How are the expectations there?
Bridget Kelly: The expectations at Roc Nation are very high. They’re very high, and I would say higher than most other labels, because the head of my label is an artist. He demands excellence for himself, and his wife is the queen of the female music game. So obviously their standards are a lot higher than the average artist. But I think the fact that there’s always been this open dialogue about the integrity of the art has made it a little more comfortable. They’re never like, “Well this is where we want you to be, and this is where you are.” I’ve never felt like I had to be broken down to be built up. It’s always been this feeling of support and synergy within the label. Ultimately, for them it’s a business. What they pride themselves on is attaching their brand to things that they really, really believe in and support passionately. So I feel like now that I’m on that list, it’s exciting, to have that kind of support. Even in moments where I felt really frustrated and wanted the album to come out, they’ve been there to be like, “Listen, be patient. Take your time, and really address these things. Reassess this, and see how you feel about that before you just jump the gun.” To have that kind of honest feedback is crucial as a new artist.
DX: What were your first thoughts when you heard Jay Z struck a deal with Samsung for Magna Carta Holy Grail?
Bridget Kelly: My first thought was, “Fucking genius!” [Laughs] Damn it, he's a genius, and he just doesn’t stop. To me, that was a perfect example that he’s still in touch with his fans. And he’s willing to step up to the plate with technology as opposed to just trying to be more advanced than it, or trying to be always ahead of the curve. He’s just riding the wave, and I feel like partnering with Samsung was perfect. My whole generation is now completely surrounded and engulfed by media, social media, and those kinds of apps. In my eyes, all those types of things are just really a distraction. To take that distraction and pair that with quality music was complete genius. You’re capturing the attention that would ordinarily be focused on nonsense with good music—how could you lose?
DX: J. Cole did various hotspots around the country for his record.
Bridget Kelly: Yes, and silent listenings, which I felt were brilliant too.
Bridget Kelly Shares Details From Touring With Mary J. Blige
DX: How are you thinking about rolling out your project? Is there another level of creativity in marketing and distributing artists should be thinking about?
Bridget Kelly: I think you have to really hone in on who your demographic is. Because I make R&B records and I’m a woman, my immediate target audience is women. So I want to go around the country and do cocktails—have a little wine tasting, a little manicure/pedicure station while the album is playing, and really just engage. I want to have a conversation, because my music is so conversational. I want to be able to connect with my fans and really talk to them about each record…get their feedback about what they like and what they don’t like. I want to go to boutiques and support local businesses. I feel like that’s important too, because that’s ultimately where I want to go.
Being able to tour this last year and do radio promo in cities that I may not have ordinarily gone to without having a record to promote really opened my eyes to what the rest of America is doing, ‘cause I’m a little jaded. I’m always in New York, I’m always in LA, and I’m always kind of on the go in my own bubble. So it was an eye-opener to be able to travel and get to see what life is like for people that live in a small town in South Carolina. It’s amazing to me, and I want to connect and related to them. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s the reason we’re doing it.
DX: How’s the response been in places like South Carolina and Baltimore?
Bridget Kelly: Honestly, really great. I was nervous, because I went on the road with Mary J. Blige this summer. So that was probably more pressure for me than any other tour, other than being on tour with Jay. Mary is an idol of mine. So to be on the road with such a legendary woman—who has such a powerful voice and speaks for woman all over the place—was really humbling. To know that she was co-signing my voice, my records and my movement, and that she was supportive of me being an act on her tour, was really validating. That made me feel like I was doing something right. In all the cities we got to go to: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, I just felt like, “OK, well this is the chance for me to connect to the audience that I want to connect to.” I had a really great response. A lot of people had heard of me, but then there were a lot of people that hadn’t that were really excited to hear my records and hear me perform, so it was great.
DX: What were those conversations like Mary?
Bridget Kelly: She is cool, down to earth, and she’s like a big sister. She’s from New York too, so she just has a really fun air about her. And she’s very spiritual, which I love. She has such a warm, positive energy that you don’t get from a lot of women—especially a lot of female artists. A lot of female artists are guarded, and you only get the surface. With her, you get the surface, because we all give off surface since we’re from New York. We don’t really have a choice. We’re not ever letting you all the way in anyway. But for her to be as warm and gracious as she was, I feel like that's rare and definitely something to be appreciated and respected.
DX: Why are female artists more guarded? Why does that tend to happen?
Bridget Kelly: I think we see each other more so as competition than men do. With R&B music, we’re all so sensitive and emotional. And we’re emotional creatures. I think as opposed to trying to make that into a form of positivity, we end up really just retreating back into our own shells like, “Well, I don’t know. Is she out to get me? Is she trying to come for my spot?” Rappers go on tour with each other all the time. When was the last time you saw any women go on a tour with each other? It’s very different.
DX: When was the last time you were star struck?
Bridget Kelly: The last time I was star struck? Truthfully, it was at the BET Awards. Seeing Charlie Wilson and Mariah Carey in person, on stage was just mind-blowing. Those are two people that I have yet to meet. I’m kind of like, “Somebody needs to make a phone call, and put me in a room.” Just let me have a glass of wine, so my nerves are calm before I get into a conversation with Uncle Charlie and Mimi.
The Story Behind Bridget Kelly’s Collaboration With Kendrick Lamar
DX: How was it working with Kendrick Lamar, and how did that song come up?
Bridget Kelly: So “Street Dreamin’” was actually recorded without Kendrick. When I first heard the record I was like, “This is dope. This is a Tupac record right? Isn’t this a Tupac sample?” And everyone was kind of like, “How did do we make the best of that?” And I said, “Let’s find a rapper to put on it, and let’s put a feature on it.” As management was sort of brainstorming, a light bulb went off and they suggested Kendrick Lamar. At that time, the thinking was, “He’s from L.A., and he’s literally on the come up right now. It’s the perfect collab.” We sent it to him to see what he’d say, with the worst-case scenario being that he says no. But within 24 hours, I had a verse back. So we talked about it later on, and he was like, “Yeah, that record is really hot. I’m messing with it.” I was excited…I was excited that he wanted to be down.
DX: So what’s it feel like? You’re almost done with the four-year pregnancy that has been creating this album. You’ve got arguably the hottest rapper in Hip Hop on the project, and you’re on the label with arguably the hottest guy in the history of Hip Hop…
Bridget Kelly: I have my eye on the prize right now, and I feel like there’s not a lot of artists doing what I’m doing. There’s not a lot of artists who have the optimism and personality I have. There are not a lot of artists that have the sense of humor I have, so I feel like I’m ahead of the curve a little bit. But I'm also a part of this really dope new wave of R&B artists that is a lot more fun, and they’re a lot more excited to be doing it. We’re just in love with what we do, and I think we’re the game changers. There’s the select few of us that are game changers. Miguel’s a game changer, Frank Ocean’s a game changer and the Weeknd’s a game changer. I feel like we’re really making some dope moves in R&B right now. So I’m pumped to just put the album out, tour the hell out of it, and just do whatever I have to do to get it on top.
DX: Is this a Renaissance?
Bridget Kelly: Maybe. It’s sort of a rebirth, and it’s not really the typical class of R&B that we’re used to. It’s a little left, and it’s experimental, and I think our audience is looking forward to that. They’re interested to see how it’s going to evolve as well.
DX: Are you ever scared?
Bridget Kelly: Hell yeah! I’m scared every single day. Absolutely. I’m petrified everyday. I think I’m more scared that it won’t be received than I am of being misunderstood. I’ll take misunderstanding, because I feel like at least you gave me a shot. I think I’m more conscious of the idea of somebody just being completely dismissed. I don’t want to be dismissed. I’m working my ass off now to make sure that I’m not going to be dismissed.
DX: I actually didn’t expect you to face any fear at all. LaGuardia High School has to feel like forever ago.
Bridget Kelly: It completely feels like forever ago, but then working on something for four years… There’s always the people in the industry that are like, “Well damn, you’ve been signed for that long and they still haven’t put you out? You really think they’re going to put you out? You really think they like you? You really think they’re a fan? They’re pushing this artist, and they’re pushing this girl more than they’re pushing you. Do you feel like you’re not as supported?” People put all these kinds of things in your head, and at some point you do sit back and wonder, “Is that what that means?” But then there’s that reassurance from my team, my management, my publicist and from my label like, “Nah, this is what we’re doing. This is the game plan.” There’s always some reaffirmation that just knocks those doubts and questions out of the park.