“Run The World (Girls),” the little-loved lead single from Beyoncé’s latest album, 4, underperformed by any number of measures, but none was more surprising than this: A single from former Destiny’s Child second fiddle Kelly Rowland outshone it. While Beyoncé blustered her way through an overworked pledge of female empowerment, Rowland’s “Motivation” became the summer’s biggest R&B hit by selling the sheer pleasure of mind-blowing, leg-numbing sex. It was the smaller of the two singles, but clearly the more effective, and Rowland clinched it with the most go-for-broke vocal performance of her career, all sensual cries and sex-flushed pleas of encouragement.
Who knew she had it in her? Rowland has typically been one of R&B’s more reserved presences, but on her third album, Here I Am, she sounds positively liberated—it’s as if the same radioactive spider that gave Beyoncé her superhuman confidence finally bit Rowland, too. Driving that new confidence, at least in part, is the record’s shift toward dance music. The producer-driven medium lifts the pressure of having to carry an album by herself—a burden that dogged her ballad-heavy 2002 debut, Simply Deep—and such carefree club songs free her from taking her material too seriously.
Rowland’s usually straight face takes on just the right trace of a smirk during the cheeky, self-directed come-ons of “Feelin’ Me Right Now,” and the singer plays even the proud opener “I’m Dat Chick”—a Beyoncé-esque celebration of self—as a romp, not a mantra. After the monogamy-minded 4, it’s unlikely that Beyoncé will ever make an album so joyfully packed with easy hookups and bottomless shots, but while Mrs. Jay-Z settles into a life of respectability, her old bandmate is relishing her role as the fun single friend.