Keyshia Cole is not, repeat NOT, a Hip Hop Soul singer. The longstanding comparisons to the Queen of HHS, Mary J Blige, seemed more justified upon listening to the ’round-the-way girl (who sang with gut-wrenching sincerity about being young and dumb-in-love) we were introduced to on Keyshia‘s platinum freshman full-length, 2005’s The Way It Is. But by Cole‘s platinum-plus follow-up, last year’s Just Like You, and most notably its sweeping crossover smash, “Heaven Sent,” a much more noticeable shift towards a less gritty, more grown-and-sexy approach to her music, began to emerge, setting the stage for Keyshia‘s latest offering, the appropriately titled A Different Me.

Equally apt is the title of the album’s first full song, “Make Me Over,”a blatantly obvious attempt by the track’s co-producer, A&M Records President Ron Fair, to make Keyshia over into another one of his onetime finds: Christina Aguilera. Polow Da Don‘s strange big-band swing production sounding like it was lifted from Aguilera‘s Back To Basics album.

And the photo spread for the cover and insert to A Different Me, showing Cole basically dressed as Christina from the video for her DJ Premier produced ’30s throwback “Ain’t No Other Man,” doesn’t help to dissuade the assertion that K.C.‘s sonic and style overhaul isn’t her own creation.

However, Keyshia‘s makeover on her junior effort doesn’t always come off as contrived as its first song. Mr. Fair reminds that when he’s not trying to convert Cole into Christina, he actually has a remarkable chemistry with the Bay Area songstress. In addition to arranging arguably the most impressive selection in all of Keyshia‘s catalog [“Love” from her debut], he helms the creation of another stellar offering, “Brand New.”

As soaring strings caress the song’s hypnotic canvass of water drop sound effects and twinkling keys (punctuated at song’s end by a surprisingly welcome harmonica), Keyshia uses her unbelievably powerful vocal chops to offer her mind, body and soul to a new love.

Cole doesn’t stay in quiet storm territory too long though, and livens up the affair on Different with the shockingly Runners-produced dance number, “Please Don’t Stop,” as well as the arguable album apex, “Erotic.” Neffu‘s snaking bassline, finger-snapping drums and grinding synths coming together to form an undeniably universal treat, one that will likely give Rihanna a run for her money at commercial radio.

K.C. keeps the perfectly pitched curve-balls coming on “You Complete Me.” Over sweeping strings (of course) and live drums that would make any fan of The Roots [click to read] feel like they’re listening to ?uestlove jam away in their ear, Cole pledges her allegiance to an equally loyal and trustworthy man. On the songs chorus she passionately belts, “You love me. You complete me. You hold my heart in your hands. And it’s okay, ’cause I trust that you’ll be the best man that you can.

Keyshia seems to have finally found someone at least resembling a soulmate, and is apparently no longer desiring a forum to critique unfaithful former flames, or even initiate an analysis of self to see what she can do to improve her relationship woes. It’s a rather secure-in-her-own-skin, and therefore more secure in love, sentiment – one that runs throughout A Different Me.

But is Keyshia really all the way there already?

When K.C.‘s artistic foremother declared that all she wanted to do was “Be Happy,” her devoted fans felt how truly miserable Mary was, and faithfully followed her at times torturous personal journey over the course of multiple albums until she could confidently demand that there be “No More Drama” in her life. And so one can’t help but question Cole‘s much more rapid completion of this process from done-wrong girl to happy-with-love-and-life woman. No one wants Keyshia to feel tortured, but the lack of conflict in her newest songs seems disingenuous. The newfound willingness to do whatever for love, and the downright schoolgirl enchantment with romance, she displays on A Different Me comes across merely as a mask she’s put on to complement the cheerier confections and more “mature” arrangements she’s singing over.

The acoustic guitar-guided “This Is Us” is the type of adult contemporary fair VH1/Top 40 radio should eat up. But where the song will likely allow Cole to court a much broader audience, longtime fans will likely wonder, either in private or aloud, what this “whitewashing”of Keyshia Cole might do to her music going forward.

But to all who are suspicious of this “different” Keyshia, it must be reminded that Cole‘s musical guide is a middle-aged white man (the aforementioned Fair), and not a young, black Uptown Records A&R calling himself Puff Daddy. So creating a defining breakbeat-driven R&B classic (What’s The 411?) or a soul-sampling masterpiece (My Life) doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Cole.

And that’s just fine (no pun intended). Once and for all, she isn’t Mary! A pointless Nas cameo (the mechanically midtempo “Oh-Oh, Yeah-Yea” [click to listen]) and a previously released posthumous union with Tupac (“Playa Cardz Right”) aside, Keyshia is clearly not Hip Hop Soul. With her third album, Ms. Cole is declaring herself to be a bona fide pop star.