Scan the Top
40 on Billboard's Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay Chart this week, and you will
just two women credited as a lead singers. One
is Mary J. Blige, an R&B institution with a string of hits reaching
back 25 years, but the other is less well-known: LeToya Luckett, a former
member of Destiny's Child whose "Back 2 Life" – the title track to her
new third solo LP – reached an audience of more than
on radio last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
One morning last week, Luckett was eating the occasional spoonful of breakfast oatmeal at the downtown Manhattan offices of her label, eOne Music, wearing distressed jeans, a rhinestone-encrusted black leather jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. She's a lively presence, ribbing clubgoers – including herself – who skip dancing to tend to Snapchat, and confessing her undying love for Nineties R&B by rolling back her chair, throwing up her hands and exclaiming in a comically high vocal register.
If you don't know Luckett's name, you know her voice: The Houston-born singer joined Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and LaTavia Roberson in Destiny's Child as a soprano in 1993. She was there for the group's first two records, including their masterpiece, 1999's The Writing's on the Wall, which spawned hits like "Say My Name" that are still played on radio to this day. But a fallout over management led the group to part ways with Luckett and Roberson after that album's release.
Luckett says there are no lingering hard feelings. "I'm so proud of every single lady that was a part of DC," she asserts. "We're all in support of each other, we're all grown, all doing our own things. I be out here stanning. Kelly is everywhere. Bey, I don't know how she does it all, creating crazy visual albums and then you're gonna carry two human beings at the same time? She's awesome."
The pop world is littered with the failed careers of group members who were unable to cut it as soloists, but Luckett stuck her landing, reemerging on her own in 2006 with a Top 40 hit, the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go ballad "Torn," and a platinum-certified debut album. (Luckett is the only one of Destiny's Child's five recording members other than Beyoncé to log a million-seller.)
Her follow-up, Lady Love, paired Luckett with talents like Tank and Ne-Yo, singer/songwriter/producers who appreciate nuance and emotion, and Luckett's voice shone in the new settings. "There's very few singers out there who really want to stand onstage and sing with Toya," Tank tells Rolling Stone. "People don't realize that. She gets on that stage, she will full-out burn, and if you're not vocally ready for that type of onslaught, you can get mauled. She can do anything: mainstream, Urban AC, soul, neo-soul, trap-soul – whatever she wants to do."
"LeToya gets on that stage, she will full-out burn." –Tank
Back 2 Life comes after a lengthy hiatus. Around the same time she released Lady Love, Luckett started a parallel career in acting, appearing in shows like Treme and Ballers and a forthcoming biopic of Dionne Warwick.
Luckett's burgeoning acting career temporarily dampened her musical productivity, but it also helped her become increasingly confident about her choices when she returned to the studio. "I've become more comfortable with opening up," she says. "On my last couple records, I think I would have been afraid to share that much. [Now] I'm not afraid to live out loud."
Terri Thomas, who has known Luckett for over a decade as Operations Manager and Program Director for her hometown Houston hip-hop station the Box, expresses a similar sentiment. "She was a young girl who had experience being in a supergroup," Thomas says. "When you're in such a major group, a huge part of your identity is wrapped up in that. When you're no longer a part of that, you have to find your voice. Now she knows who she is. She's purposeful."
Her purpose on Back 2 Life? To reach the hallowed ground of Nineties R&B ballads like Boyz II Men's "Water Runs Dry" and Jodeci's "Cry for You" – high-stakes tracks where singers plunge into their own pain and uncertainty. "Can we get back to that?" Luckett wonders. "That is my album's mission. Nowadays, people are too cool to feel."
Even when recording her new LP, Luckett was still fearful at times. "I was terrified about putting out 'Weekend,'" she admits. "I'm being the aggressor in the relationship [in that song] – I'm never the aggressor in the relationship! But sometimes I want to be." If Luckett's resolve weakened, her manager and her mother came to the rescue: "When I would go back into my shell," she explains, "they'd be like, 'Are you a real person or not?'"
Those reality checks also echo in "Grey," a forthright duet with Ludacris that slices through heaps of romantic red tape. "I think a lot of times we find ourselves in a relationship where we are on two different pages," Luckett says. "I'm not living in the grey area. It's being able to have that conversation: 'Look, this is what I want – are you with it or not?'"
"Grey" evokes the hip-hop soul of Luckett's beloved Nineties, just one mode on an album that whizzes adeptly though decades of R&B and hip-hop. "I'm Ready" is butterflies-in-the-stomach funk, "My Love" touches on Pharrell's dancefloor-oriented productions with the Neptunes, "Weekend" brims with the energy of trap, and lead single "Back 2 Life" interpolates the great 1989 Soul II Soul hit of the same name.
The slow climb of "Back 2 Life" on mainstream R&B/hip-hop stations – it has hovered inside the programmers' Top 40 for most of May – should be heartening if you believe, like Tank, that the music industry needs to support more artists with Luckett's talents. "Back when Babyface was running things and Jam & Lewis were running things, labels signed you because you were gifted," Tank explains. "Now people are getting signed for a bunch of other things that sometimes have nothing to do with music. I don't have a problem with that, but if you're making room for that, make room for this too. Let's celebrate excellence."
Either way, Back 2 Life already represents a personal victory for Luckett. "Especially for my first album, I struggled with even the thought of being a solo artist," she recalls. "I'm terrified, I'm all by myself, nobody's here! I would let people go out, find records; I would just record it if that's something everybody in the room felt I would sound good on. This album, I was like, I'm taking control."