Dream Girl

The making of Malika

Less than two years after working as a Budweiser model at Oakland Raiders games, Malika Ubaka was hanging with Diddy on MTV. The aspiring entertainer, who has since dropped her surname, was angling for a part in the all-girl group on Diddy's series Making the Band 3. The music mogul was so impressed with Malika that he allowed her to advance to a second season.

The singing hopeful was cut in fifth episode after bobbling difficult choreography, but not before impressing the judges with a marked slim-down. While she didn't get picked for the group — which went on to release a number one album as Danity Kane, and is currently touring with Christina Aguilera — she maximized her fitness acumen by releasing a workout DVD, and is working on an album to be released later this year. She also hosts a local hip-hop interview show called "Hyphy" (online at hyphy.podshow.com) produced by celebrated filmmaker Kevin Epps (best known for the documentary Straight Outta Hunter's Point).

Time will tell if Malika ends up languishing locally, or using her reality TV star status to grasp bigger fame. One advantage in her favor: Major labels already have an eye on Oakland in a way they haven't in more than a decade, recently contracting residents Clyde Carson (Capitol) and Mistah F.A.B. (Atlantic) as well as Berkeley quartet the Pack (Jive). Another artist originally from Oakland, the platinum-selling singer Keyshia Cole, has cracked open the door on Bay Area R&B. Malika's voice lacks the visceral pain in Cole's, but she possesses a tonal control that often eludes Cole and a deep register that couldn't be duplicated by most young R&B singers without computer trickery. She'd likely yield good results if she got a chance to work with stars like Alicia Keys or Kanye West as producers, as Cole did on her debut. Keys and West, at least, would recognize that Malika's voice has a throwback quality (she sometimes sounds like a sassier version of classic '80s soul singer Stephanie Mills) and could craft an appropriately timeless sound for her.

Major labels want artists that have built up momentum on their home turf. Malika calls herself "Queen of the Bay" (the title of a new song on her MySpace page), but she still needs to work on becoming a household name. "Seven Seas," her track in rotation on Wild 94.7, isn't the best spark for a grassroots wildfire. The song is laden with clichés and masks her vocal prowess with a thin melody.

What she really needs is to take those robust pipes and match them against money — and hitmakers who know how to turn golden voices into gold records. Give her a shot with pricy pros like Atlanta's Sean "The Pen" Garrett (who has written hits for Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé) or Johnta Austin (creator of chart-toppers for Mariah Carey) and the resulting alchemy could make for addictive hooks and substantive lyrics absent from the material she's floated around so far. Instead of patterning songs after airwave vapidity, she needs to angle for originality — or at least that little bit of uniqueness that the industry can help spitshine. People already fell for the televised Malika; now she needs to bring out the real in her music. Her tenacity and that singular voice make her someone to listen up for in 2007.

 
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