“No, that’s not going to work,” La’Porsha Renae said with a disappointed sigh as she cycled through the photos being presented as potential covers for her debut album.
The 23-year-old didn’t want anything too revealing, nor did she care for any of the tight beauty shots her label favored. Her head shook with disapproval until she landed on a glamorous shot that included her 2-year-old daughter, Nayalee Kaya, excitedly cheering her on.
The photo reminded the McComb, Miss., native of why she wanted to pursue a career in music — a dream that sustained her through years of turmoil as she navigated an abusive marriage and repeated comments that her appearance would hold her back.
“I am a thick woman. I have natural, big, poofy hair that I’m not going to flat iron, and I am a single mother,” she said over lunch at a chic West Hollywood vegan eatery. “I wanted to speak to all of the nicks of what went against me becoming a star.
“My goal is to be an [inspiration] to people and to make them feel good about themselves or encourage them in hard times. I don’t want to be a shiny object that everybody looks at.”
A little more than a year ago, Renae found fame as a contestant on the juggernaut that was “American Idol.”
It was the second time the big-lunged R&B singer had tried out for the competition (she failed to advance in 2010), and she won over the judges with a blistering take of Radiohead’s “Creep.”
Renae was an instant audience favorite, with emotional covers of songs by Rihanna, Sia and Mary J. Blige. She earned comparisons to Aretha Franklin; past winners Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia Barrino (who mentored her) were staunch supporters; and she was a front-runner leading up to last year’s finale.
Though she placed second, Scott Borchetta — “Idol’s” in-house mentor and head of the show’s label partner — saw such promise that he had her placed with Motown Records through his Big Machine imprint before the finale. In a matter of months, Renae went from a complete unknown to a priority at a major label.
“It was like a pre-workout,” Renae said of her “Idol” experience. “Some things that I thought worked a certain way, from the outside looking in, didn’t work that way.”
After the show’s conclusion in April 2016, the singer moved her family to L.A. and began work on what would become her debut, “Already All Ready,” released last week.
Because she was not bogged down by the typical “Idol” post-season summer tour (dwindling ticket sales and show ratings saw the annual trek nixed ahead of the final season), Renae was able to focus her efforts on the record.
The label paired her with producer Harmony Samuels (Ariana Grande, Fifth Harmony, Fantasia), who oversaw the bulk of the album’s material and set aside a slew of pop-leaning songs he thought she’d be into, based on her “Idol” repertoire.
It was a pairing she called “divine,” especially as she found her voice to push for records that felt true to her — something she didn’t think she could do as a first-time artist who came from the “Idol” machine, where finalists tend to churn out first projects that are heavily shaped without their input.
“He just embodied who I wanted to be as an artist,” Renae said of her collaborator. “We didn’t just do songs because my voice would match great with it. There were records I could have [blown] out the water that didn’t make the cut because I didn’t feel it.”
Samuels supported that. “She’s a woman with her own mind-set ... her own vision,” he said by phone recently. “She knew what she wanted, and we went for it. She fought the label, she fought me and with everybody to make sure she got what she wanted; there should be a round of applause for that.”
Conversations about her traumatic past steered the album; they were struggles she was open about during her “Idol” run.
Two months before her 2015 audition, she and her daughter were living in a women’s shelter after she found the courage to leave her abusive husband.
She had previously left, moving to California to start her career, but she and her husband reconciled and she got pregnant — a surprise, as she had been told she couldn’t conceive. Renae said the abuse only worsened, with her husband telling her that she would die at his hands. (He faced multiple counts of sexual battery and rape, but charges were dropped after Renae said he persuaded her not to testify.)
The pain from the relationship and the resilience it taught her are major threads in “Already All Ready,” which she completed last fall while touring with Barrino.
Although the album is straightforward musically in its approach to R&B, Renae navigates some tough terrain here. She sings of finding refuge on “Hideout,” addresses rape trauma on “Cover Up”, and the album’s lead single, “Good Woman” — one of two helmed by R&B savant Ne-Yo — confronts the man who mistreated her.
“I’m a real good woman … but even good women go bad when they go through what you put me through,” she warns on the record.
“She’s like a hybrid of Beyoncé, Fantasia and Aretha Franklin,” Samuels said. “I’ve never heard that kind of vocal where there’s so much soul but still sounds so current and has so much passion and pain. It’s amazing.”
When it came to a title for her record, Renae looked for inspiration in the criticism she’d faced before and during her time on “Idol.”
“A lot of people behind the scenes were telling me that I was going to have to do something with my hair, my weight, all of that stuff,” she said. “The title is like ‘Look — me, like this, just as I am, is already all ready to go out there.’ I was born for this.”
Admittedly, Renae is still adjusting to the spotlight, and the transition hasn’t been smooth. She’s twice found herself at the center of an online firestorm with the LGBT community over her beliefs, recently revealing that she had decided to “be heterosexual” after "being homosexual for two years."
“My answer reflected my own walk, no one else’s. I have never spoken for anyone but myself. At the end of the day, my point was to advocate for the love and respect of the LGBT community,” she said. “Labels, boxes and politically correct terminology all seem small and irrelevant when being compared to the violent and brutal attacks on the lives of people who are different than what society says we should be.”
Renae can certainly handle the heat. There was a time where life was far tougher than being ridiculed by strangers on the Internet.
“People say a lot of hurtful things but in a way, the abuse that I endured from my husband prepared me for that,” she said. “The things I had been told and drilled into my head from him were worse than what anybody could say to me.”
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