London's Burning 

In which LaToya shrugs off an Idol dis and ascends to full-blown divahood anyway.

Let's just say LaToya London is really in touch with her fabulous side. And wouldn't you be, if you could flip on the radio and hear your own hit R&B slow jam shuffled in the mix? Even KMEL's acerbic DJ Sana G. -- easily the station's saltiest personality -- still constantly crows about how "we all know she shoulda won" the 2004 American Idol pageant, which London lost to Fantasia Barrino, another rising R&B songstress with a hard-knock coming-up story.

But even if London feels dissed, the 26-year-old starlet points out that "Fox is watched by everybody, so I got a lot of exposure, and I got to meet a lot of great people." Like Elton John, she adds. And granted, she still got her record deal. Having recently migrated to southern California, the singer signed to the Beverly Hills-based Peak Records to put out her debut, Love & Life, whose late-September release triggered much fanfare in her native Oakland. Now, on the night of her album release party at San Jose's Club Deep, the coltish, gold-spangled diva sits primly in a VIP cabana with her arms outstretched to embrace cousins, aunties, ex-paramours, grandmas with ironed-down permanent waves, guys with glittering dog tags and Kanye West sunglasses, and a whole cast of other fabulous characters.

Whatever the thing was that Sheila E. said about "the glamorous life," LaToya London obviously latched onto it.

Nonetheless, there's a discernible American Idol-style kitsch in both her stage performance and her new album. (Maybe it's the overused contralto wail.) And yet she isn't an ultrapackaged diva, and it's actually the underdog thing -- coming so close to victory but falling short in the end -- that makes her palatable outside pop music circles and even gives her an edge. London is that girl from the hood who got one-upped by another girl from the hood; she may stiffen a little when you bring up the Idol pageant, but that's where her humanity shines through.

Amid the Club Deep throngs of stylish, lipsticky women and baby-faced thugs in Enyce wear, you'll catch the occasional hip-hop celebrity: East Oakland's retro crooner Baby Jaymes (London's opening act), the infectious DJ Backside, emcee Simone Nia Ray, one half of the Mekanix production team, and people with names like "Allie Baba" or "Cousin Tu Tu" who claim family ties to D'wayne Wiggins and Michael Jackson and stuff. Apparently, everybody is somebody, and folks who don't wind up in the VIP section schmoozing over egg rolls and blue hypnotic drinks spend the night freaky-deaking to David Banner songs. Even the men are engaged in various forms of preening: Two dudes linger by a case of top-shelf liquor to peer at their reflections in the glass paneling.

Meanwhile, those who'd passed by the swankier Ambassador's Lounge down the street report that West Side Connection rapper Mac 10 is playing a show so sparsely attended, you could see tumbleweeds blowing across the dancefloor.

Obviously, LaToya had to show everyone who the real mack was. Barely hitting five foot two in her high-heeled sandals (and weighed down by rows of jangling bracelets), she still takes the stage with gusto. Backed by the Philadelphia-based funk outfit Bits of Clay, she gamely shouts out her homies and lays it on thick for her fans: "You want some more?" she teases. Midway through her half-hour set, the singer performs a clamorous version of "Appreciate," a paean to some handsome beau that sounds just a little less desperate and coquettish than recent Destiny's Child singles, though it's nonetheless one of Love & Life's stronger numbers.

Onstage, London seems completely at ease, a talent she has honed from years of trying to please an overbearing mother "who would make me sing in front of her friends all the time, and kept me active in talent shows"; now a formidable team of managers, promoters, and handlers do the goading. Years of performing have taught her how to quell stage fright ("You just stomp on it") and handle an audience, a skill she demonstrates tonight no matter how tinny the sound system and hyphy the crowd.

At times, it seems like Odetta or Mahalia Jackson might be trapped in that tiny frame -- London is prone to melodramatic R&B tremolos that wrack the top half of her body and send her careening in every direction. She also has racier material: Mid-set, she regales one lucky audience member with the raunchiest version of "Happy Birthday" fathomable short of popping naked out of a cake. But London is also syrupy and girly (maybe a little gossipy, even), and when she complains about needing to go "because my perm's starting to mess up," you almost think she told you something intimate.

So picture yourself riding home from Club Deep that night in a raggedy Toyota Corolla, preparing for another lackluster booty call with ... what's that guy's name again? Tony? Jamal? Cousin Tu Tu? You cruise along the 880 for thirty miles before arriving in the temperate environs of East Oakland --LaToya's old stomping ground -- where a gibbous moon reflects off the hoods of old sedans, chainlink fences, and lawn ornaments sinking in the mulch. Your date switches the radio on to KBLX, and you hear three familiar acoustic guitar chords and a swank African drum in the background: the beginning hook of London's "Every Part of Me." The singer brays through the car speakers, singing devilish lyrics soft and warm enough to make you melt: Baby, what I see through your eyes is the promise of for-eee-ver.

Suddenly, this isn't your average roll in the hay. The night seems dark, romantic, and full of ... well, the promise of for-eee-ver, as LaToya taps into some core of inner fabulousness you didn't even know you had.

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