HIP-HOP HOMEGIRLS

A TRIO OF WOMEN PUTS THE VALLEY ON THE MUSIC MAP

It's fair to say Peniston is better than her material at this stage. The singer came up with the words and melody to "Finally," and her producers have mixed together an extremely radio-friendly bunch of pulsing dance tracks, but a writing- and knob-spinning team that could slug it out with Peniston note-for-note, say, a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or a Cole and Clivelles, could push Peniston's career to a place even she never dreamed of.

As it became clear that the singer was leaping from the Pooch's album to the top of the charts, rumor had it the Pooch was stewing over Peniston's using Female Preacher as a springboard. But the Pooch swears she harbors no Peniston envy.

"There's no jealousy, because she has a voice," the Pooch insists. "I gave her the chance, but I didn't give her a voice."
Under the heading of "near future," Peniston's Filofax lists film, but she's positively hush-hush about the follow-up to Finally. The obvious question is whether she'd be up for taking on more intimate stuff in the vein of Oleta Adams or Anita Baker. "I don't like to let the cat out of the bag" might be her way of saying she's not ready to give up a steady diet of No. 1 club songs just yet. Peniston did grow up on balladeers like Patti LaBelle and Shirley Murdock, though.

Still, her best songs now all have throbbing beats in common. Peniston's voice genuinely turbocharges the house tracks on Finally, but she sounds flaccid, if technically impressive, on the ballad "Inside That I Cried."

On the strength of her up-tempo performances, critics have mentioned the word "diva" so often to sum up the singer, it might as well be a professional degree. No argument from Peniston here: "I think people consider 'diva' as someone with a lot of soul, and I consider myself a person with a lot of soul, so I think the description would fit right."

Just like "diva" and Chaka Khan naturally pop into your mind when you hear Ce Ce Peniston, there's someone people think about all the time when they're talking about Malaika Sallard.

"To be truthful," Malaika says with an embarrassed laugh during an interview at her Glendale apartment, "people say me and Ce Ce sound alike. Ce Ce has a full voice. She doesn't have this baby squeak. I feel I fall into the same category."
Malaika, in fact, is already shaping up as a Mariah Carey to Peniston's Whitney Houston. "Why do I have to sound like her?" she asks in mock exasperation. "Why can't she sound like me?"

The singer, 20, swears she sounded like her friend before they met, but it's a fair bet Malaika's voice is more Penistonian today than before Ce Ce.

The singers met a couple of years ago in the cafeteria at Phoenix College, where Peniston was on her way to a liberal arts degree and Malaika was studying nursing. You could say Malaika took a minor in Peniston.

Soon after they met, the singers had students listening in amazement to their duets. But it wasn't their voices that had jaws dropping. It was their choice of venue--the cafeteria. While students munched and studied, Peniston and Malaika took requests, conversed in song and generally made a scene.

"We would grab an audience," Malaika recalls. "People would gather around and ask, 'Are you gonna sing today?'"
Not everyone was similarly moved by their harmonies. "There would be people who would say, 'Oh, those girls are always singing.' And we would just say, 'Look, it's for the benefit of our voices, we like to do it, and if you don't like it, then I'm sorry. There's other places on campus that you can hang out.'"

School wasn't the only place Malaika and Peniston carried on.
"We could be in the middle of the mall, and if I'm on one end and she's on the other end, we will sing, 'Hey, how ya doin? So how was your weekend, gir-r-r-l?' And sometimes we just go on and on and on. So it's kinda cute, but then again, it embarrasses other people."
Beyond wowing shoppers and bugging students, Malaika's workouts with Peniston did something more constructive.

"With us singing back and forth," Malaika says, "I would assume that we do have some characteristics alike."
Peniston brought out the beast in Malaika. "When I first started, I sang more through my nose than through my diaphragm. She told me, 'You've gotta use your stomach.' Now my voice has more clarity. It's louder, it's fuller, you can hear the words better. If you would've heard me a few months ago, you would've said, 'Oh my God!'"

Peniston, along with her mother, also gave Malaika a mental makeover.
"I think confidence was my main problem," she admits. "They said that I had talent, that it doesn't come a dime a dozen, and that someone is gonna pick me up."
Besides serving as Malaika's voice coach and guru, Peniston even played agent. "We pretty much promised one another, 'Hey, if you get a record deal, think about me," Malaika says.

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