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Skills, skills, skills

Kandi xscapes her girl group past and comes into her own

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"Hey Kandi, whatchu gon' do now, since you can't hide in the background no more?"

That's the question asked by a make-believe smart-mouthin', playa-hatin' chick in the outro to Kandi Burruss' debut solo album, Hey Kandi. It's a question others have no doubt pondered. Since her days as a member of Jermaine Dupri's platinum-selling Atlanta-based girl group Xscape, Kandi has stood out in an inconspicuous sort of way: she was the youngest, had the most unique vocals and, by some standards, was the cutest of the four girls. Yet she was never considered the leader of the group. (That title was most often attached to LaTocha Scott, the first member to pursue a solo career.) Nor did she ever conduct herself as a diva-in-training.

Everything about Kandi was sort of homegirl-next-doorish. And unlike her more outgoing groupmates Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, Scott and Scott's sister Tamika, Kandi had a rather innocent, laid-back style that didn't scream "look at me" but easily drew eyes to her. Her cool nonchalance, though, belies Kandi's dogged determination to be an all-around artist.

Having been a mere 16 when Xscape debuted, Kandi, now 24, is no longer one-fourth of an act. She is the act, with Hey Kandi and its lead single, "Don't Think I'm Not," a song about equal opportunity two-timing that starts off smooth and progresses to a throbbing bass beat. She's also come out front as a writer, having co-written No. 1 hits for TLC ("No Scrubs" with Tiny) and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills."

Now juggling multiple careers, Kandi is a rising star. Again. Only this time, she's writing the script and playing the lead. And the powers that make the music industry go round seem to approve: "No Scrubs" won the Grammy for Best R&B Song, and last June, Burruss became the first woman to receive the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Songwriter of the Year Award. She also penned Destiny's Child's "Bugaboo," 'NSync's "Makes Me Ill" and Sole's "4,5,6."

Kandi says writing has been a longtime dream. "I always felt that I could write," she says. "When I was a lot younger, when we were first being managed by [local talent scout] Ian Burke, he used to take us around these different producers. They used to play tracks all the time and I used to come up with melodies to their songs."

Kandi said her requests to Dupri to let her write for Xscape usually fell on deaf ears. "I would ask Jermaine all the time to let us write. On the second album, he let us collaborate. But when I say a little bit, I mean a little -- like a word here, one sentence probably. So it just never really got to come out on the stuff with our group."

When members of Xscape started going in different directions, Kandi and Tiny initially decided to do a duet project. "I told Tiny we needed to write our own music so that next time around we would have control," Kandi says. "We were meeting different producers and She'kspere had this track that ended up being 'No Scrubs.' When he played us the track, I was like, 'That's hot, would you let me write to it?' He gave me the track. At first I didn't think everybody would like the song, because sometimes I write things that are funny to me but might be corny to other people. But he liked it, so we did it for our demo tape."

But before it could end up on any release by Kandi or Tiny, TLC got hold of "No Scrubs" and took it straight to No. 1. From there, Kandi says, "She'kspere and I became a writing team, so that one song kinda jumped my writing career off."

And her solo career as well. Hey Kandi is what the singer refers to as a "sassy" album packed with frank lyrics and real life issues. "The lyrics that I write are very straight to the point," she explains. "Some I would consider funny and I would suppose there's a lotta truth. I always have been known to say whatever is on my mind, whether it's right or not. When I write songs, I guess my personality just comes off in the lyrics."

Now as a solo artist, Kandi has the freedom for which she'd been searching. "It allows me to have more creative control. [Xscape] didn't have any whatsoever, because we didn't write any of our own music. So that was the biggest change for me -- being able to have a lot of input lyrically in the album and make it the way I wanted it to be. And vocally, everybody had their own thing in our group and most of the time I did the low alto parts. But on this album you really get to see my range."

For now, Kandi continues her duel careers as artist and in-demand songwriter; recent projects include penning two tracks for the new Chris Rock film, Down to Earth, to be recorded by Monica and She'kspere's new artist Tina Novack, as well as the new single from Usher, "Pop Ya Collar." But Kandi has set her sights on yet another musical role: producer.

"A lot of times people put more hype on the producer than they do the writer," Kandi says. "If you really look at it, most of the people who write never really get any type of big props unless they're artists or if the writer produces too, like Babyface or R. Kelly."

So, "Kandi, whatchu gon' do now since you can't hide in the background no more?" Next question.

Kandi performs Sun., Dec. 10, at Philips Arena, as part of the "Jingle Ballers Jam 2000" tour. Tickets are $40.50-$45.50, available through Ticketmaster.

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