The singer talks about her upcoming solo album and her relationship with Beyoncé

”Can we say nervous?” asks Kelly Rowland as she climbs into an SUV in New York City. The 29-year-old former Destiny’s Child star is riding with her assistant and one of her managers from a midtown hotel to the Gayle King-hosted listening party where she’ll unveil five tracks from her upcoming third solo album. ”I got crazy butterflies right now!” she says, while she studies some notes and begins to pray in the backseat. But as a founding member of one of the best-selling female groups of all time, hasn’t she been to countless events like this in the past? ”I have,” she answers. ”But this is different.”

Pretty much everything in Rowland’s professional life has changed in the last 18 months. She found the courage to fire Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s dad (who’d managed her career from the start), parted ways with her longtime record label, experienced international success as the vocalist on David Guetta’s dance hit ”When Love Takes Over,” and signed with Universal Motown, which will release her new album on Sept. 21. After years of living in Beyoncé’s shadow, Rowland is still struggling to transform herself into a true headliner. Will the newly independent woman finally break out on her own? On June 29 she’ll debut two singles — the Dr. Luke-produced pop song ”Rose Colored Glasses” and the urban anthem ”Grown Woman” — that are each marked by a defiant, first-person stance that’s noticeably tougher than her past material. It’s no wonder she’s just decided to call the record Kelly Rowland. As she puts it, ”It’s about me right now.”

When the members of Destiny’s Child started pursuing solo projects in 2002 (at the time, the group consisted of Beyoncé, Rowland, and Michelle Williams), it was Rowland who actually scored the first No. 1 hit and Grammy with her smash Nelly duet ”Dilemma.” But she’s never been able to match Beyoncé’s superstar status. After ”Dilemma,” a rushed solo album, Simply Deep, spawned a few minor hits, including the cautionary tale ”Stole,” and sold about 600,000 copies. Two and a half years after Destiny’s Child’s last album, 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled, Rowland released her sophomore solo effort, Ms. Kelly, best known for ”Like This,” a spunky collaboration with rapper Eve. But the album, which was delayed several times, sold half as many copies as Simply Deep. Beyoncé, meanwhile, had blown up into one of the world’s biggest pop icons, scoring massive hits like ”Crazy in Love” and ”Baby Boy.” Rowland seemed more and more like the forgotten Child.

In 2008, Rowland was on vacation in Saint-Tropez, where she heard French DJ David Guetta spinning at a club. After falling in love with one of his instrumental tracks, she asked him if she could use it as the basis to write a song. The result of their collaboration was ”When Love Takes Over,” her first true dance record. ”There was so much trepidation,” she recalls. ”I didn’t want my urban audience to think, ‘Oh, she’s just gone dance’ or ‘She’s gone pop.’ I just needed something different for me.”

Establishing her own musical identity was even more difficult considering Rowland rarely had solos during her decadelong tenure in Destiny’s Child. Some of Rowland’s fans remain convinced that, with Mathew Knowles also serving as the group’s manager, Beyoncé was always going to be the favorite. ”As much as I’m flattered by what they’re saying, I think it worked for us,” Rowland says of her and Beyoncé’s roles in Destiny’s Child. ”Beyoncé has talent that stands on its own. It had nothing to do with Mathew. She didn’t have to have her daddy to tell her ‘You’re going to do this song.’ She made it by her talent. And that’s real.” (Both Mathew and Beyoncé Knowles declined to comment.)

Still, after recording ”When Love Takes Over,” Rowland felt like she needed someone other than Mathew Knowles steering her career. So in January 2009, Rowland made the most dramatic change of all: She fired her manager and surrogate father, who had overseen Destiny’s Child’s career from the beginning, back when Rowland was practically living at the Knowleses’ Houston house after her parents split. ”That took big-girl shoes, let me tell you,” says Rowland, who broke the news at Knowles’ office. ”I needed so much strength and courage. And to be bold. Not just for myself, but for my fans. They deserve the bold Kelly.” Rowland, who insists there wasn’t one particular incident that prompted the decision, says Knowles responded stoically. ”He had me think about it,” she says. ”I came back and told him, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And he was like, ‘Okay. I support you. We’ll release a statement.’ It was that simple. After that I was like, ‘This wasn’t hard!”’

Indeed, the most difficult moment came two months later, when her relationship with Columbia Records, which had released all of Destiny’s Child’s albums as well as Rowland’s solo efforts, abruptly ended. ”I needed a change of scenery,” Rowland says initially, echoing the ”mutual decision” language floated in the label’s press release at the time. When pressed, however, she tells the real story. ”In all honesty, they let me go. The records that I put out probably didn’t perform as well as maybe they wanted them to. We live in an industry where you’ve got to bring in money. You can’t be pushing out so much money and not bring anything back. I get it.” (Columbia declined to comment.) Asked if she thought firing Knowles led in any way to Columbia’s decision to cut her, Rowland responds simply, ”I can honestly say I really don’t know.”

What could have been Rowland’s professional low point was balanced by great news from overseas: ”When Love Takes Over” was becoming a worldwide smash, thanks in no small part to Rowland’s soaring vocals. ”She’s a really incredible singer,” says Guetta. ”She’s also really inspiring because she has very positive energy. If she was going to do something in the same style as Beyoncé, it was always going to be difficult for her. I’m very happy that together we found a new direction for her.”

Even without a label, Rowland — who began dabbling in TV, cohosting Bravo’s The Fashion Show last year — continued to record. While in the studio one day, working with Guetta on what would become her current European single, ”Commander,” Rowland bumped into Universal Motown president Sylvia Rhone, who was there visiting Nelly. ”When I heard ‘Commander,’ I was like, She’s for real,” Rhone says. ”She’s really got a vision now, and it’s not a cookie-cutter vision. I was really impressed.” Soon Rhone hooked Rowland up with several top producers, including Dr. Luke (Katy Perry’s ”California Gurls,” among other huge hits) and Ne-Yo, who produced three of the album’s highlights. ”I said to [Ne-Yo], ‘Think about where I am in my life right now,’ ” Rowland says. ” ‘I am in a changing mode. I have a lot of decisions to make. I have to grow up. I have to be strong for myself.’ And he said, ‘All right, I got you.’ ” Their three-minute conversation resulted in ”Grown Woman,” the feisty ”Shake Them Haters Off,” and the powerful ballad ”Heaven and Earth.”

Her new boss likes what she’s hearing. ”She feels more confident now than she did in the past,” says Rhone. ”Kelly is living her life out loud right now.” Rowland already senses the difference as well. ”They’re excited — that’s a start!” she says of the Motown crew. ”They’re excited about me, about the project. And that’s a good feeling. They see me on my own, as an individual.”

Others, of course, still see her as a member of Destiny’s Child, and continue to speculate about whether the trio will get back together. On June 7, Mathew Knowles surprised many industry observers by releasing a statement that seemed to close the door on a reunion, saying, ”There are no plans for the group to reunite for a performance or album…. The members remain close, but will not reunite as a group.” The announcement didn’t sit well with Rowland. ”Because it came from him — it didn’t come from us,” she says. ”I was like, ‘What’s that about?’ But I don’t care. I talked to the girls about it, and we’re straight. That’s all I care about.”

Rowland insists the turmoil that constantly surrounded Destiny’s Child never affected her relationship with Beyoncé, whom she calls B. ”We were always civilized. That’s what I’m most proud of. From the rumors to the lawsuits to false accusations, it was really tough,” says Rowland, referring to the legal tussles involving dropped group members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Robinson. ”We were strong because we had each other. There were times when I couldn’t even be strong enough, so I had B. She was the only thing I knew. She was my only friend.” For the record, Rowland says she’d be open to a reunion sometime in the future, ”if the fans wanted it to happen.”

For now, though, as she puts the finishing touches on her new album, Rowland isn’t thinking about the rumors, or the drama, or the competition. Instead, she’s focusing on herself. ”I don’t let the rest of the world judge me,” she says. ”I’m not in anybody’s shadow. I feel like I’m in the light now.”

5 Classic Kelly cuts

”Survivor” 2001
Rowland delivers the most biting and memorable line of the Destiny’s Child anthem: ”You know I’m not gonna dis you on the Internet/’Cause my mama taught me better than that!”

”Dilemma” 2002
Out on her own for the first time, Rowland teamed up with Nelly for this Grammy-winning No. 1.

”Soldier” 2004
Destiny’s Child’s last studio album showcased Rowland more than ever, especially on this hit, which also featured newbies T.I. and Lil Wayne.

”When Love Takes Over” 2009
French DJ David Guetta enlisted Rowland for this smash, which lit up dance floors last summer.

”Commander” 2010
This second collab with Guetta — released as a single in Europe — is vying for summer-jam status too. Will it be a global hit? Stay tuned. — Tanner Stransky