From R&B Star to ‘Real Housewives’ and Back: How Kandi Burruss Built an Empire

Before Outkast, girl group Xscape helped put Atlanta music on the map.

Kandi Burruss of Xscape performs at the 2018 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in New Orleans2018 Essence Festival - Day 2, New Orleans, USA - 7 Jul 2018
Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Before her role on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” Georgia-bred Kandi Burruss made her name in one of the biggest R&B acts of the 1990s, Xscape, whose hits “Just Kickin’ It,” “Understanding” and “Who Can I Run To” helped put the Southern state on the hip-pop map. At the same time, Burruss was also moonlighting as a songwriter, earning credits with Mariah Carey, Pink, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and TLC, for whom Burruss wrote the smash “No Scrubs” with her partner in Xscape, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle (T.I.’s wife).

Indeed, Burruss has a rich, full musical life that includes her soulful recent solo albums and new music (starting with the single “Ready for This “), which prompted her just-launched first solo tour. Named “Welcome to the Dungeon,” and featuring opening slots from equally empowered soul-hop femme fatales Tamar Braxton and Trina, Burruss’ new showcase features heavy doses of burlesque and stripping, female and male, along with deeply breathy R&B sounds.

Variety caught up with Burruss on the eve of the tour’s start.

When you started in reality TV, did you expect it to be a career for you or something to augment your music?
Kandi Burruss: In the beginning, from a musician’s standpoint, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. When I first started joined the “Housewives” ten years ago, I did not know it was going to be as big of a deal as it was, and is, for me. I definitely didn’t think that it was going to be something that would take up years of my life. I thought, originally, that I was just joining on to do something fun for a year. Obviously, it turned into a life-changing thing.

Maybe a bit too pervasive?
As an artist, you’re used to being in the public eye. This is considerably different. People here get to know more about your personal life. They know my mamma. They know my kids. It’s more personal. Fans feel more connected. They’ve been able to see inside my life for the last ten years. Now, though, I do think that people learned to respect me for what I’ve done as a songwriter. They’ve witnessed what I have written and produced for some of the other people on the show (most notably, “Tardy for the Party” for ex-“Housewife” Kim Zolciak). From there, they figured out what else I have done, be it Xscape or TLC or other artists I’ve worked with.

But making your own music evaporated a bit…
That’s the thing that has suffered, because I got used to putting so much of my energy into the show and my other businesses, I did not focus on myself as a music artist.

When did you start thinking, “OK, I need to get back into the game.”
My daughter began bugging me. “You need to put out some new music.” When Xscape came back together for a tour in 2017, and all of our shows were selling out, it made me miss being on stage and producing music on a regular basis. That’s what I did for most of my life. And it was just as amazing, now, as it was when we first had hits. I don’t know why I stopped that focus, but doing that tour made me re-focus on music. So did my time on Broadway after the Xscape tour doing “Chicago.” Performing eight times a week put in the mindset of being onstage again.

Did you have the new music that you’re making — starting with “Ready for This” — in your head for a minute before recording?
Not really. When I’m in the studio, I’m experimenting, trying things on. I knew that I wanted a different sound, though. Who wants to come back from an extended hiatus and make the same music that people have heard from you before? Mostly, I was trying to be open-minded.

Some might credit Xscape with helping put Atlanta on the musical map. What say you?
We were definitely at the beginning of it. LaFace had just moved to Atlanta in the early ’90s, started their label here, and brought a lot of opportunities for a lot of people to do their thing. Dallas Austin was on the forefront of developing artists then. So was Jermaine Dupri. They all were a part of the TLC project, and there were several acts buzzing at the same time. Having LaFace come here got people in the industry to pay attention to Atlanta. The guys in OutKast and I went to high school together you know, all artists dreaming together in the same class.

Was Andre 3000 as sharp a dresser then as now?
Yeah, actually. He was very creative, a very dope painter. You remember when people used to spray paint jeans, and put characters on them? He was that guy in our school.

Tiny also saw further success on reality television, with “T.I. and Tiny, the Family Hustle” on VH1. Between those shows, and the “Love & Hip Hop” series, how has that changed the game in terms of showing how the celebrity sausage is made, as it were?
Back in the day, artists could be mysterious. Now, people want to know and hear everything about you. They want to see and feel the mess that is life – and who are bigger messes than artists? Reality television used to be the thing you stayed away from as an artist. Now, many many artists want to be part of a reality show – more than you know.

Reality television is also a valuable tool when it comes to artist development.
Right, because the labels aren’t putting much money into it. They want artists who have their core social media followings built up. Artists are already putting their videos on YouTube, VEVO, Instagram – reality television is just another way in; a big way in.

How is your new single and album a progression from earlier solo records such your last album — 2010’s “Kandi Koated” on Asylum?
I had been writing pop hip hop R&B crossover before that, you know? That was an inspiration on my music. However, when I got with Warners, they wanted me to do an adult AC album because they thought that was hot right then. So, that album was straight R&B with slower ballads. I love the album, but I was trying to give them what they wanted. It could’ve used more up. “Ready for This” is more banging. It’s using different and softer parts of my voice.

“Welcome to the Dungeon,” your first solo tour seems pretty risqué. 
It’s a very wild, over-the-top costume party and variety show. I wanted to make people’s mouths drop.

Were  some of the visuals and movements inspired by your time in “Chicago?”
That’s true. I wanted to put a positive spin on some of the negative stuff from “Housewives.” People bitch-watch that show. I want something positive and fun attached to my name when they Google me. I’ll be in character. We barely have any clothes on. It’s cheeky, in that there’ll be plenty of butt cheeks showing. Tamar Braxton and the baddest bitch, Trina, will be with me, and we just signed on Foxy Brown. So many people haven’t seen her for a while, so that’ll be fun. There’ll be burlesque vibes, striptease, and the wild side of me, along with some great music from my past and the present. I want you to come back to my show when I come through your town again. Or at least talk about it until then.