With 'In Love & War' album, Amerie wants to be more than a '1 Thing' Wonder

HOYA, SEXY: After a four-year absence, Georgetown grad Amerie is back with a new album.
HOYA, SEXY: After a four-year absence, Georgetown grad Amerie is back with a new album. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

NEW YORK -- It's lunchtime at Seraphina in Midtown Manhattan and Amerie is ransacking her purse, searching for a shaker of Himalayan salt.

"It has the same pH balance as our tears," the 29-year-old singer explains.

Half diva, half brainiac, this is a Georgetown University graduate who likes to read science magazines while she prepares for her latest photo shoot, a team of handlers fussing over her hair.

But most know Amerie as the voice behind 2005's chart-topping R&B single "1 Thing." With its bursts of percussion and ribbons of insistent melody, the song remains one of our decade's most revelatory pieces of pop music. "It's this one thing and I was so with it," she belts on the song's delirious refrain. "It's this one thing you did."

On Tuesday, Amerie will try to do it again with "In Love & War," her first U.S. release after a lengthy four-year absence. Weaving urgent melodies through sandpapery beats, it's an album tailor-made to stand out in an era where R&B singers are often treated as interchangeable parts in the great American pop machine.

"On the radio, you have a lot of artists sounding like each other," Amerie says between bites of bruschetta. "They don't really sound like themselves -- they just sound like the producer who did the record. To me that's super-whack."

Super-whack, indeed. In a world where uber-producers like The-Dream, Timbaland and Danja often play musical chairs with pop's A-list vocal cords, listening to the radio can have a particularly numbing effect -- one that makes Amerie's grittiness feel all the more resonant.

You can hear it in lead single "Why R U" -- a pining love song with a scrappy boom-bap track courtesy of the production team the Buchanans. Unlike the chorus of "1 Thing," here our hero finds herself suspended in a different type of romantic disbelief: "Why are you the only thing that I care about? . . . Baby, you're no good for me, no!" Her vocal trills morph into growls as the beat threatens to boil over. "I like to work with people who are willing to create something with me, versus just giving me just their off-the-rack track," Amerie says of her collaborators. "I didn't come here to get a such-and-such record, I came here to get an Amerie record that we're gonna create together."

That desire for complete control came to a head in 2007 when Amerie decided to shelve her then-forthcoming disc, "Because I Love It." The album would have been her third U.S. release for Columbia Records, but the singer had grown skeptical of her paymasters and put the project in cold storage as she plotted a move to hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam, where she's currently signed.

"There was just too much turmoil on the executive level," she says of the lack of promotion she felt at her old label. "If it's not gonna be put out right, I don't want to do it."

The transition to Def Jam comes after a life of endless transitions. Eldest daughter of a U.S. Army family, Amerie Rogers was born in Massachusetts, but quickly moved to her mother's native Korea. Then to Texas. Then to Germany, back to Texas, and eventually to Alaska, where she graduated from high school.

Along the way, she glommed on to a wide spectrum of pop, developing an affinity for Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, the "Grease" soundtrack and whatever else her parents were playing on the family stereo. "We always had soul music in the house," Amerie says. "And my mom listened to a lot of traditional Korean music" -- a drum-and-vocal-centric form that undoubtedly influenced her approach.

When her family relocated to Fort Lee, Va., in 1998, Amerie wanted to stay close. So she enrolled at Georgetown. She would major in English and minor in fine arts, but began pursuing her pop ambitions full steam. "Socializing was nonexistent," she says of her student days.

She eventually crossed paths with local producer Rich Harrison and formed a partnership that would launch their respective careers. "A lot of the [music] that I was encountering was soft and melodic R&B stuff and I'm not really into that," says Amerie. "I like a more aggressive sound. That was just so hard to find. That blend of aggression and prettiness."

But Harrison had it. He produced her entire debut album, 2002's "All I Have," as well as "1 Thing," and other standout tracks from her 2005 sophomore disc, "Touch." The duo haven't collaborated since, but Amerie wants to change that.

"Hopefully, we'll work together on the next project," she says. "I really want to. I'm always thinking about the next thing."

But today she has a new album to promote, and a car whisks her away from the restaurant to the studios of "106 & Park," the long-standing video countdown show on BET. The program's brightly colored soundstage is packed with teenagers coached to scream with all of their being, creating an ambience that sounds like pandemonium. If the network could find a way to harness the wind energy generated by these teenage lungs, it might be enough to power the blinding klieg lights overhead.

After the hosts' introduction, Amerie glides onto the stage to present her new video for "Heard 'Em All," a song with sharp, clashing synths that match the video's post-apocalyptic imagery. Three minutes later, the music fades and the audience cheers -- though the teens look a little dazed by the tune's aggression. This isn't the sweet, cookie-cutter R&B they're used to. Amerie knows when to add salt.

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