Chrisette Michele is one of the more accomplished artists of her generation. She’s garnered critical acclaim ever since her 2007 debut album I Am; enjoyed commercial success over the course of four albums, worked with some of the biggest names in music and even took home a Grammy. But on the eve of the release of her fifth album, Milestone, the recently-engaged 33-year old singer is looking out to the horizon and basking in the possibilities.
In as such, album No. 5 feels like a new beginning. After almost a decade with Def Jam, this will be Michele’s first studio album as an independent artist. And Michele is relishing the opportunity to present herself without interference or distortion; though she doesn’t consider her previous work to be inauthentic and bristles when asked if she felt stifled by her former label.
“I don’t know that I felt ‘stifled,’” she says. “I know that I wondered if anybody knew what I was capable of; if anybody knew what kind of music I was capable of making. I never understood how I could make music with Jay Z, Rick Ross, Ghostface Killah, Game–and people would still not know that I have a presence in the hip-hop community. That was always challenging for me, trying to explain ‘No, I resonate in that community. You just have to let me go there.’ So that was a hard thing for me, not feeling welcome to perform in that space.”
With Milestone, Michele is free to perform in any space she wants. And with her upcoming nuptials to Four Kings Production’s CEO Doug “Biggs” Ellison, she’s in that truly rare place where her art and her heart are both flowing freely. Michele and Ellison have a long and winding history; he helped shepherd her career early on, the two fell in love–only for things to sour as her star rose. They wound up suing each other and didn’t speak for seven years. But after she left Def Jam and launched her own label, she reached out to the man who knew her best–both as an artist and as a person.
“I had fun with it, but I knew something was missing,” she told HelloBeautiful last December. “I called Doug, and after speaking to him for only a couple of hours, we were inseparable again. It’s the craziest, weirdest thing because we had gone through all that together.
“A few days into us talking again, he was like let’s go hang out in the studio. There’s flower petals on the ground, the Empire State Building is in the background, and here he is, dropping down to one knee, and opening up a box. I couldn’t do anything but scream and every kind of reaction I don’t think you’re suppose to have. I never cried, I just screamed, and screamed, and screamed.”
And in reuniting with Ellison to forge an even stronger bond, Michele was led to reconcile with another man from her not-so-distant past. She and Rick Ross had famously collaborated on his hit “Aston Martin Music” in 2010, but things took a turn after Ross protested his loss at the 2010 Soul Train Awards by walking out on a performance of the song. MIchele addressed the issue by criticizing Ross on her blog shortly thereafter.
“Who stands off at an award show because they don’t win?” she wrote. “An award is winning at being as ‘stuck in a category’ as possible. Congratulations to all the trophy holders who won at being the most like every one else…I could have sworn hip hop was on the come up. But apparently rapping is about venting, bashing, chauvinistic pigging, and EGO. Not cool. Don’t LET me start rapping. (album in stores november 30th).”
In a subsequent interview with The Source, Ross didn’t take kindly to her comments.
“I haven’t spoken to Chrisette Michele or her team. but I didn’t speak to her to [invite her to] the show either. It was something maybe the label set up. [But] her choice of words were ugly. Denouncing hip-hop, that ain’t cool. Using ugly words could give off the wrong impression. That could make your hat look ugly to me now. That could make your haircut look ugly to me now. Hopefully if we win a Grammy, she’ll come out and accept it with your boy. Give me a kiss on the cheek.”
But through her fiance Ellison, six years after all of that drama, Michele wound up in an unexpected position while recording Milestone.
“I’m in the studio and having a discussion with my fiancé and I’m telling him that he’s being a little arrogant and a little bit rude,” Michele recalls. “So I said ‘I’m going to take this to the pen and pad.’ And I started writing about it, and I [start to] sing about it. And in the middle of me recording, I said ‘I can’t put out a song about my brand new fiancé and I having an argument.’ He steals the song and brings it to Rick Ross. We’d just gotten out of this big thing of having this thing at the Soul Train Awards and us not speaking for six years. And I’d held onto our departure and it broke my heart a little bit because I thought that we were going to be something special in the music industry together. So he steals it and brings it to Rick Ross and Ross gets it. Then my fiancé calls me and he says ‘Rick Ross has something he wants to tell you.’ And he plays it for me and I just dropped to my knees. Like ‘I don’t even want to listen to this in front of you.’ It was a raw emotion.”
The song became “Equal,” a standout on the album; Michele calls it “the most uncomfortable song I’ve ever released—and awkward,” but believes the sincerity is so palpable and revelatory on the record.
“That’s what you get when you listen to that song; my fiancé, Rick Ross and myself—a collaboration, of sorts. That’s what ‘Equal’ is about.”
The power of redemption and reconciliation seem to be underlying themes in who Chrisette MIchele has become. And while that spirit may inform her most recent output, she got it from someone who has been in her life from the very beginning.
“My dad is super non-judgmental,” shares Michele. “He’s very equal opportunity; it doesn’t matter what you think or believe in. He’s very non-judgmental. It’s strange coming from him because he’s the son of a preacher and he’s supposed to be sort of rigid in his thinking. And I love my father for that because as a kid I would play songs for him, I would write songs for him and he would think every single one of them was the most amazing song he’d ever heard in his entire life! That gave me a freedom to be honest, to feel, to share. So when people are honest with me or they feel or they share, whether or not I like it, I try not to judge it from a selfish perspective. I got that quality from my dad. It’s definitely helped in my cleansing process when things don’t feel too good.”
Being a woman in the public eye–with so many public fall-outs for malcontents to poke at–Chrisette Michele has had to learn how to compartmentalize in spite of the slings and arrows that come from haters. She’s especially candid about how social media can sometimes be a war zone for people who just want to attack a celebrity.
“Oh it’s painful,” she admits. “It doesn’t become less painful because you have money in the bank. I’ve never understood why people think it’s not painful. That’s the thing I’m always curious about: why does anybody think this doesn’t hurt me? Why would anybody think it’s okay to say this to me? Those are the moments when you kinda want to up and run. You delete as much as you can so the negativity doesn’t spread, but it’s painful as it is to anybody else. It’s bullying.”
But you can’t always run, so she’s become more adept at withstanding the onslaught.
“I’ve grown what people refer to as a tough skin. I don’t know that that means I’m really ‘tough.’ I think it means I can bounce back a little faster. I know what to do to push myself through things that are uncomfortable. I know what exercises to do at the gym or I’ll go box or I’ll pray more the next day. But I still feel and I still experience what I hear. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s important I don’t lose my innocence or my reception to the world. I don’t want to get so bitter and jaded that I can’t feel anymore. I know a lot of people like that in this industry.
“You look at those people and you remember when they were in whatever singing group or in the Billboard charts or dancing and having fun or wearing Marc Jacobs on the red carpet with you–and the next thing you know, they hear one or two things that hurt [them] and they don’t know how to heal. They don’t know how to pick themselves back up again.”
Forgiving, learning how to heal, allowing yourself to be your whole self; those are all hallmarks of a fulfilled life. And for Chrisette Michele, that’s what ultimately matters. But it’s a lot of work. And she would love for people to lighten up and remember that music is supposed to be a joyous exchange between artist and audience.
“It’s been exhausting,” she says with a laugh. “You just want to put music out and play and have fun! But nobody wants to play! I feel like I’m this grownup at the playground in a sandbox and nobody wants to hang out with me. That’s what music was growing up. It was art. I was called an artist. Now, I don’t know what people think I’m trying to do or what [they think] I’m trying to say or what point they think I’m trying to get across. It’s always brutally judged. It’s never just me having fun with a pen, a pad and a microphone. Really—those are my only weapons.”
Chrisette Michele’s Milestone is available May 10.