In all reality, the Atlanta native has endured her share of drama, and trauma, in recent months
By Rodney Carmichael
BRAVO DARLING: Kandi Burruss’ star is brighter than ever.
When Kandi Burruss reveals, during a recent telephone interview, that her favorite expletive is “motherfucker,” it’s almost too cute to bear. As if we really needed another reason to root for the Atlanta native, come to find out she likes to cuss up a storm, too.
“My mouth is bad sometimes,” she says, smiling through the phone. “I have to wash it out with soap. Luckily y’all don’t get to see that ’cause you can’t really say bad language on TV.”
It’s probably one of the few character wrinkles of Burruss’ that wasn’t excessively ironed out over the course of Season Two on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” While NeNe Leakes transgressed from fan fave to villain with a vengeance, newbie Burruss stole the hearts of viewers with her down-to-earth, charmed demeanor and an off-screen plot line that earned an outpouring of sympathy.
Considering all the tribulations and B.S. Burruss has publicly endured in recent months – from the gossip blogs that initially made a mockery of her relationship with former fiancé Ashley “A.J.” Jewell to the shocking tragedy that claimed his life before the season finished airing – it almost seems as if her decision to be on the show was cursed from the start.
But the exposure, and all the drama that’s come with it, could potentially work wonders for the solo career of the Grammy-winning songwriter and former member of the Atlanta-based girl group Xscape. Not only has she garnered a new fan base, she’s renewed old fans’ interest. And she’s done so by giving them something they never had before – an intimate look at the story behind her music.
Case in point: “Fly Above,” the lead single on her new self-released EP of the same name, is a half-baked R&B ditty about one of the most cliché topics in black pop – them haters. But set against the backdrop of Burruss’ whirlwind drama, unfolding as it has before the viewing public, the song rises to the level of a cathartic anthem.
“‘Fly Above’ is [my] theme song because so many people have counted me out and hated on me over the years,” says Burruss. “And over and over again, I have to prove myself.”
She first sprouted wings after the demise of Xscape, the ’90s female R&B quartet she joined, along with Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, as a 14-year-old attending Tri-Cities High School in East Point. After dropping three platinum albums in eight years, the ’round-the-way girls of Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label split amid finger-pointing and infighting. “When the group was falling apart, certain members were just like, ‘Y’all ain’t gonna do nothing once I do my thing,'” Burruss recalls.
But she went on to achieve groundbreaking success when she and Cottle co-wrote TLC’s No. 1 hit, “No Scrubs” (1999). Burruss followed that up with a string of hit singles and album cuts written for such chart-topping acts as Destiny’s Child (“Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Bug-a-Boo”), Pink (“There You Go”), N’Sync (“It Makes Me Ill”), Whitney Houston (“Tell Me No”) and more. “I break off and start writing songs for everybody, and thatcaught people off-guard.”
But solo success still eluded Burruss. Her debut, Hey Kandi, released in 2000, failed to make a dent. Even though the danceable first single “Don’t Think I’m Not” reached No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, Columbia Records bounced her from the label. Still, the industry couldn’t write her off just yet. Her behind-the-scenes writing credits earned her a Grammy for “No Scrubs” and she was the first woman to be honored as Songwriter of the Year by the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards.
She’d emerged as the new voice of female empowerment, penning plain-spoken, in-your-face anthems that gave ladies the upper hand. In particular, such songs as TLC’s “No Scrubs” – inspired by a bootleg boyfriend of Burruss’ – and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” – in which potential male suitors are reminded, as Gwen Guthrie did in 1986, that “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent” – cemented her rep for putting the smack down. “I think a lot of those songs are like two homegirls talking trash,” she says. “It’s just something me and my girls talk about [and] laugh about that I just put into a song.”
But knowing she was the pen behind such lyrics (“Can you pay my bills?/Can you pay my telephone bill?/Can you pay my automo-bill?/Then maybe, baby, we can chill”) also made it easy to misread Burruss as a gold-digging expletive. Surely, her steady flow of royalty checks might cast aside that aspersion with the quickness, but it took her turn on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” to demonstrate the truth to those of us not privy to her financial statements.
As viewers discovered during the show’s 15-week run, Burruss is the anomaly among the cast of wannabes. The only member who came to “RHOA” as a bona fide celebrity, she’s proven herself the least pretentious on a program where ratings are fueled by constant cat-fighting, crass materialism and diva-like drama.
“People have expectations,” she says, “and they think, ‘Oh, she’s gonna be bougie’ and ‘She got money.’ The funny thing is, I think the girls on the show are more about material things than I am.”
Meanwhile, the drama in her life has almost been too real for reality TV. From the time Bravo announced her as the replacement cast member for Season Two, the ish hit the ‘Net. Her new fiancé, Jewell, came with baggage: namely, six children by four different babies’ mamas. It seemed like the wrong move fora single mother trying to stay scrub-free while raising her own 7-year-old daughter, Riley. Gossip bloggers feasted on the irony. She and her disapproving but doting mother disagreed onscreen about the relationship. It seemed like a lot to bare before the cameras, but Burruss was committed to keeping it real.
In an early episode, during a scene set in her kitchen, tears streamed down Burruss’ face as she tried to convince her mother, along with several close family members gathered with them, that Jewell was worthy of her hand in marriage. It became a defining moment, due in part to her emotional outpouring, but also because it showed her surrounded by a host of relatives, with such down-home names as Aunt Hazel, Uncle Bebo and Uncle Booley, professing their unconditional support.
Scenes like that humanized 33-year-old Burruss in a way that nothing in her past two decades of entertainment could have. And with a sophomore solo album in the works, it made for the perfect career setup.
Jewell, on the other hand, hated the public scrutiny that came with being on the show, according to Burruss. His source of income was regularly questioned, as was his faithfulness to Burruss. But Burruss stood by her ex, allowing him to move two of his daughters in and continuing to take care of them even after she and Jewell broke up in June of this year. By then, the season had wrapped and she’d started to notice some of the warning signs her mother spoke of coming to pass. When Burruss spotted him with a date immediately after their split, that sealed their separation, though they remained friends.
“A lot of things happened after the show stopped taping that made me be like, ‘OK, my mom was right about a lot of stuff.’ Like, a lot of the kids did end up moving in for a period of time.” Burruss says. “It wasn’t that she didn’t like him, she just didn’t want that situation for me.”
After Jewell died on the night of Oct. 2, as a result of a one-on-one fight with Fredrick Richardson in front of the Body Tap club – the Marietta Boulevard strip joint he was buying into – she received such an outpouring of love via Twitter, random blog commenters, even strangers on the street, that it shocked her. In hindsight, his death made Burruss “regret the fact that [the show] focused so much on A.J.,” she says. “It pissed him off and I hated to see him upset.
“But other than that I wasn’t really bothered by anything that they showed about me on the show because I went into it saying I wasn’t going to be secretive. I was just going to do me, and however that came off is how it was going to come off. So I feel like it was cool.”
Her willingness to be so outspoken and direct has always been her best songwriting tool, and several of the songs on the EP are ripped straight from the pages of their relationship. On the playful cut “It Must Be Good,” she toys with the popular notion that there’s only one way she could’ve fallen so hard for Jewell. “He got that fire/he got that whoopty-whoop,” she sings. “He got whatever it is you say he do.”
The ballad “I Just Know” was written “when A.J. and I were in a really great, happy time in our relationship,” Burruss says. “It’s a perfect wedding song.”
Despite the tragedy, Burruss says she’s handling it well. “My brother passed away when I was 15, and he was the closest person in the world to me other than my mom. So I feel like anytime somebody has experienced death with somebody that’s really, really close to you, it never affects you the same after that,” she says. “It makes me emotional, it makes me sad, but at the same time I know that things are going to be OK. I’m more hurt for his children. So when I listen to those songs, it brings back happy memories about our relationship.”
In the meantime, she says she’ll take her time before re-entering the dating pool. She’s focused on her family and her career. Her sophomore album is on hold while she continues to shop for a major-label deal. But she released the Fly Above EP – which features production by Drumma Boy and cameos from Rick Ross, Gucci Mane and her longtime friend Rasheeda – via iTunes on her own Kandi Koated Entertainment. The Bravo network has also asked her back for the third season of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” for which she’ll get paid an undisclosed sum of money. Beyond that, she doesn’t plan to become a regular on the series. “I don’t think I’ll do past one more season,” she says. “I don’t want to get to the point where that’s all people see me for is reality TV.”
Indeed, that would be a motherfucker.