Sitting behind a long, frosted-glass table in her London hotel room, as though chairing a boardroom meeting, Blu Cantrell, the former glamour model and beautician turned American R&B superstar has just been told she will be switching on the Christmas lights in London's Camden. "Camden? What the hell's that?" she asks, bemused. One explanation later and the singer decides, "It'll be so cute to ride one of those old red buses."
Cantrell is wearing an asymmetric black top with a massive, pink letter "B" on the side, a pair of three-quarter-length trousers and stocking boots, which, she explains, are attached permanently to the leg-warmers she's sporting. She offers me her leg to touch under the table to verify that this is indeed the case.
The former Tiffany Cobb (she admits to being in her late 20s but the suspicion lingers that she may be more than a tad older) had a hit in 2001 with "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)", a withering put-down of boyfriends who cheat. But her career really took off earlier this year with the global No 1 hit "Breathe".
The video for the new single, "Make Me Wanna Scream" - a fusion of R&B and reggae - sees Blu spray-painting the car of her boyfriend with words like "pig" (nothing too strong to be seen on MTV). When the boyfriend quite naturally, freaks out, Blu walks off, as cool as a fridge. The boyfriend, Tony De Niro, is now her real-life beau. Introduced to him by Puff Daddy, who gave her a job as a backing singer, Cantrell is now so smitten with the braid-sporting, tattooed De Niro that he has been promoted to tour manager. It's rumoured that she is to transfer her management to him from Violator, who look after Missy Elliot and 50 Cent.
Cantrell, now a resident of Los Angeles, is in townnot to bathe north London in light, but to promote her current album, Bittersweet. It includes all the hip-hop and ragga-inflected upbeat hits that make her shine. But when, on "Unhappy", she sings "Been saying I'm overweight for a while/ but did you forget, I was carrying your child", or ventures the Mariah Carey-esque "I Love You", it is with a rare intensity.
"I don't sing songs about cars. I like emotion - the passion and the hate," Cantrell says. "And I've had enough hurt to know what I am singing about. My lyrics do help women," she continues, yawning. "But, y'know, a woman came up to me once and said she was cleaning out her husband and had stolen his cash cards. I couldn't commend her for that. I mean, 'Hit 'Em Up Style' is only a song!"
Cantrell was discovered in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, in 2000, by an associate of "Tricky" Stewart of Redzone Entertainment, "who hit on me". She was introduced to the boss of Arista records, Antonio "LA" Reid, who signed her precisely 30 seconds after hearing her sing. "I used to be told to quit daydreaming about becoming a singer," she says. "But I always knew I was blessed with music."
Born in Providence, Long Island, Blu spent many years "having to pay the bills", on occasion as a glamour model in adult magazines. She posed naked for Black Tail in 1995, only for the pictures to resurface in May 2002. Cantrell is direct about her past, and is not averse to exploiting it. She performed "Breathe" at Hugh Hefner's mansion a few months ago, and talks are underway for a Playboy shoot, reportedly for a million dollars. "We were all born naked and we will die naked," she asserts. "So I really don't see what is so wrong with having our clothes off."
"Look, I'm not gonna go pick up some music award and say sweetly, 'Thank you very much'.Being phoney is old-school. I might have done all that shallow, media-trained bit at the beginning, in my first year, but now I've broken out. I leave that kind of thing for everybody else."
'Make Me Wanna Scream' is out on Arista on Monday