For many, Kimberly Michelle is the breakout star of VH1 guilty pleasure Love & Hip Hop Atlanta: a reality TV maven whose frequent social media beefs, high-profile romances and Instagram stunting makes for gossip site gold. But her drama-filled antics often mask the fact that she has evolved into one of the most impressive R&B musicians of the decade. All three of her albums debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard charts, and her most recent album, More Issues Than Vogue, peaked at Number Two upon its March release. Michelle sings with a bracing honesty and sensitivity that's uncommon in urban pop, her songs addressing the joys and pain of being a talented and misunderstood black woman in America.
Throughout her career, the Memphis-born Michelle has fought for respect. An early deal with Jive Records, where she collaborated on songs with Missy Elliott and R. Kelly, foundered; she was forced to compile the tracks from those sessions into the 2012 mixtape 0 Fucks Given, which earned over a million downloads and led to a deal with her current label, Atlantic Records. "Producers were angry and tried to kill me, but I said, 'I don't give a shit, I gotta do what I gotta do'," says Michelle during an interview at the Kentucky Derby, where she's appearing as Jack Daniels' first African American brand ambassador.
Despite her recent run of hit albums, K Michelle has struggled to get traction in mainstream outlets, an issue she addressed during a memorable interview with the Huffington Post. Echoing assertions by Tank, Tyrese and Jazmine Sullivan, Michelle asserts that race is major factor in why black soul singers have been shut out of pop radio in favor of white performers like Adele and Sam Smith. Hilariously, More Issues Than Vogue was originally titled I Ain't White, But I Hope You Like It. She spoke to Rolling Stone about that controversy, as well as erroneous perceptions of her, her enduring love of country stars like the Judds and that would-be tour with Azealia Banks that was mysteriously canceled.
What's the meaning of the title More Issues Than Vogue?
Basically, I just saw that scrolling down my timeline about a year ago. I started laughing because people have this perception of me, and it used to bother me, but now it really doesn't because everybody wants to place people in their character role. For me, there'll always be issues and things placed upon me whether they be true or not. So I used the title to clear up and kinda poke fun at things people say about me.
Do you feel as if people's perceptions of you keep them from recognizing you as a serious musician and artist?
Yeah. People take the things that the media says and they want so bad not to like my music. What can you do other than make good music, and people will slowly come? Each album, you hear people say things like, "Oh my god! I'm so late to the party!"
Your music has gotten increasingly diverse from Rebellious Soul to More Issues Than Vogue in terms of the sounds and the songs you sing, particularly your recent embrace of country music.
For me, it's always been diverse. It's just been what the label has allowed. I grew up on country music. I didn't grow up singing R&B music. I got a music scholarship to Florida A&M University for yodeling. That is my passion. That's what I sing. That's who I am. The first tape I ever got was the Judds. It's Love Can Build a Bridge. "Rompin' Stompin' Bad News Blues" was my favorite song from that album. I also incorporated that song into my new stage show. I took it back to the very first country that I had ever heard. When I pulled it out, people thought I was absolutely crazy, and then they started to love it because they saw that the Judds song had this blues feel to it. "Rompin' Stompin' Bad News Blues" is a song I used to run around the house singing when I was a little girl.
Bob Westbrook — he's a voice teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, he trained Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and a lot of Miss Americas — when my mother took me to him, he said, "She's this little black girl, and people are going to expect her to sing Whitney Houston when she goes to these pageants and contests. Let me teach her something else." It was crazy, because my mom said, "We're already on this Judds thing." So I felt like everything worked out.
So when you see this girl on this ratchet TV show called Love & Hip Hop, and she's basically fighting for her life, you saw me at the worst, and you saw me at the point where there was anger. You saw me at a point where there was a song in me, and that song wasn't necessarily the song of who I was, but that song was what I was in that moment. So people took that, and people wanted that, and people want the next everything so badly. For me, everybody wants the next Mary J. Blige. As much as I love Mary J. Blige — and she is a phenomenal woman and someone that I look up to greatly — that's not who I am. At this point in my career, I'm somewhat tired of it. I'm tired of people telling me who I am. When you talk about the diversity of my music, I can only sing the songs that God places in me.
Do you still listen to country music?
I was really late when it came to Chris Stapleton. How can me of all people be late to him, because he somewhat embodies everything that you are? It's real life to those who can relate to the [vocal] runs, and the soul, and the gospel within his blues and country. I have been just sitting in my tub — there's videos on my Instagram listening to all types of things, and he's definitely one of them. The Alabama Shakes, I like them. I think the Pistol Annies are absolutely cute. I love "Trailer for Rent." There's a lot of people that I'm getting into now because I have some downtime.
Earlier, you said that during Rebellious Soul, the label didn't let you make a wider variety of music. What changed so you can do that now
What has changed for me is I don't give a fuck. That's what it is. What has changed is I deserve to be heard. I deserve to sing. I deserve to not dumb down my singing and my lyrics to fit urban radio. I deserve to sing songs that touch the world. I have that kind of voice. God gave me that voice. I didn't put it in me. I just put my desires, my passion, and most importantly, His song. God put that there, so who am I to walk around scared of it, or try to appease, or try to change who I am so that the people in this world feel more comfortable with the song coming out of my mouth? That's just everybody in general and their thoughts toward what black women can sing.
It's not like your albums don't sell. They've performed well on the charts.
Yeah, the albums have done well. But it depends on what you're in it for. Some people have to be in it for the album sales; that's a business. What are you in it for? Are you sure it makes you happy? I want to make great music. I don't want to water it down. I want to make great music [inspired by] what I grew up to. My fans love the same thing I love. That's what people don't understand. [Black people] have to stop thinking that our fire is dumb. We have to know that there are some people fighting to feel, just fighting for a feeling, and those are my fans, those are the people. So we can't always think that they would want a certain kind of song, or they want a certain kind of feeling. Nobody wants to feel the same way every day unless they're high, you know?
One of the standout songs on More Issues Than Vogue is "If It Ain't Love." How did you create that track?
Man, "If It Ain't Love" is, like, my favorite, you know? The record was played for me, and it was a beautiful voice [Ilsey Juber] that I heard singing it. As soon as I heard it, the first thing that came to mind was, "Fucking smash. Amazing record." Of course, the natural instinct, and second thought that comes to mind was, "They're not going to let you sing it. What radio station are they ever going to play this on?" That was the second thing that came to mind. It was just sad.
There's not a hate for my label. I actually do love my label because I see artists that do not get any support. The label does believe in me. We have to fight with society, and it has to be figured out. But we did sit at the table, look at this record, and say, "This is a great record. If you were white, it would be right. It would be a smash." If this was Taylor Swift, it would be a smash. And it's crazy that it goes like that. So we toyed with the idea: Should we ship out a great record without a name or a face?
Earlier, you talked about how "heartbroken" you were on your first two albums. "God I Get It," the final track on 2014's Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?, seems like it reflected a turning point in your life.
And it should have been a single, don't you agree? And it's never been released. The best music on my albums never get released [as singles]. I was just saying, "God, I get it. I'm a mess, and I admit it. I keep learning the same lessons, and missing out on blessings."
How many songs did you record for More Issues Than Vogue?
Probably about 60 records. That's normally where we fall in doing these albums. Every summer, I'm recording. There's a bunch of amazing records that the label wants to get out from More Issues Than Vogue, but as they do that, I'm already about to start into my fourth album. I'm going to be in Nashville and different places starting that album up, working with people that I've always wanted, to do this country and blues album.
Are you still based in Atlanta?
I have a spot in Atlanta. I have a restaurant about to open in Atlanta. Once that is open, I'll be back in L.A. I love Atlanta, but I realize for me, mentally, L.A.'s the best place for me. I'm in love with waking up to the sun, to the smell of the air.
What's the name of the restaurant?
It's called Puff. It started out being a hookah lounge. But I said, "You don't really smoke hookah, K. Your friends do. And they love it. But hookah can come and go. You have to do something different." So we will have organic hookah. But mainly, I'm a foodie. I love food, and I'm going to have the most amazing food in this restaurant. Also, we'll have over 50 different drinks, girlie drinks that won't give you headaches, like Captain Crunch martinis, and all this kind of stuff. It's a very unique restaurant. There's not one like it at all in Atlanta. So I'm excited. We're aiming for the last week in July, top of August.
What happened to the 2015 tour with Azealia Banks that got canceled?
I definitely admire and love her music. I think she's a very courageous woman. I do feel like Azealia can be misunderstood at times; that's something that happens with me. So I don't take her recent jabs to heart at all. But it wasn't time. It was time for me to focus on my album. When I was going out on this tour, it was because I was just going to repackage Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? But when I went in, the label decided it was time for me to do a whole new album. So it was a unanimous decision that it just wasn't time to go on tour. I needed to focus on this album that I have now.