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.

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.

More TV

  • Keegan Allen Walker CW

    Keegan Allen Boards 'Walker, Texas Ranger' Reboot at CW (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Pretty Little Liars” alum Keegan Allen has joined the cast of “Walker,” The CW’s upcoming reboot of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Variety has learned exclusively. He joins previously announced stars Jared Padalecki and Lindsey Morgan. Padalecki stars as Cordell Walker, a widower and father of two with his own moral code, who returns home to Austin [...]

  • Bethenny Frankel arrives at the 71st

    Bethenny Frankel Sets Business Competition Series at HBO Max

    Bethenny Frankel is coming to HBO Max with an unscripted competition series. The “Real Housewives of New York” alum has scored an eight-episode order at the nascent streamer for “The Big Shot With Bethenny.” In the half-hour series, aspiring moguls will compete for a chance to win a spot on the executive team of Frankel’s [...]

  • Patina Miller

    'Power Book III: Raising Kanan' Casts Patina Miller

    Patina Miller has been cast in a leading role in the upcoming “Power” prequel “Raising Kanan.” Officially titled “Power Book III: Raising Kanan,” the series is a prequel set in the ‘90s during the early years of “Power” character Kanan Stark. Miller will star as Raquel “Raq” Thomas, Kanan’s mother. The character is described as [...]

  • Sundance Now Picks Up U.S. Rights

    Sundance Now Picks Up U.S. Rights to 'The Secrets She Keeps'

    AMC Networks’ streaming service Sundance Now has picked up U.S. rights to the literary adaptation “The Secrets She Keeps.” Based on a novel by Michael Robotham, the noirish drama builds on a chance encounter between two pregnant women in a supermarket just outside of Sydney. While Meghan (Jessica de Gouw, “The Crown”) is an upwardly [...]

  • SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Jennifer Lopez"

    Colin Jost Mulls 'SNL' Exit Post-Election (EXCLUSIVE)

    Colin Jost has become famous by delivering fake news on the venerable “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live.”  But he may be poised to deliver real headlines about his future with the program. Jost’s new memoir, “A Very Punchable Face,” is due out April 14 from Penguin Random House’s Crown imprint. In uncorrected galley [...]

  • America Ferrera Gentrified Variety

    With ‘Gentefied,’ America Ferrera Brings a Series Unlike Any Other to Netflix

    America Ferrera had directed before, but not like this. She and her crew were shooting scenes from a massive burner party — think a miniature Burning Man, complete with drugs and costumes and bad dancing — for Netflix’s upcoming series “Gentefied.” Though she wouldn’t appear on camera, Ferrera was dressed for the occasion in a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content