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Former Xscape members migrate to television

Kandi Burruss ('Real Housewives of Atlanta') and 'Tiny' Cottle ('Tiny & Toya') are an example of the trend to bring more diverse stories to the small screen.

July 26, 2009|Jon Caramanica

Of the girl groups that brought hip-hop attitude into R&B during the early to mid-'90s, Xscape, rough around the edges with a distinctly Southern twist, always seemed like the one most likely to become a footnote. Lacking some of the advantages of its peers -- SWV was highly polished, and Total was aligned with Puff Daddy (later Diddy) -- it made great music that felt, simultaneously, evanescent.

Come 2009, though, and it's Xscape that has had legs, with two of its former members migrating to reality television: Kandi Burruss is the newest addition to the cast of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" (its second season begins on Bravo, 10 p.m. Thursdays) and Tameka "Tiny" Cottle is one of the subjects of "Tiny & Toya" (BET, 10 p.m. Tuesdays)

It's a testament to the group's music, to be sure, but also to developments in reality programming, which is increasingly looking away from traditional subjects and locales and bringing more diverse stories to the small screen. Kandi and Tiny live in Atlanta, where both were raised and where they experienced their greatest successes.

Atlanta is its own musical ecosystem: The city has been at or near the center of black pop for more than a decade and has become a haven for black stars in other fields, from film to professional sports. It's an alternate universe too often overlooked by the coasts.

But even if this world isn't being tracked by national tabloid media such as Us Weekly or TMZ, it's well documented in local outlets and in a raucous universe of black gossip blogs (Bossip, Media TakeOut, and many more). On "Tiny & Toya," the online world is both the locus of celebrity and a bane. In a recent episode, Toya told Tiny about a woman who accosted her on the street, trying to suss out who she was, and eventually recognized her, calling her "Lil Wayne's babymama." Replied Tiny, "That's too much Internet for her!"

Toya is Lil Wayne's ex-wife, actually, and the mother of his daughter Reginae. And Tiny is the fiancee of the rap star T.I., currently serving a sentence in federal prison for weapons possession. Their friendship is the core of the show, but it's far more fascinating as a document of the wages of hip-hop stardom as experienced by those caught in the blast zone.

Thus far, neither Lil Wayne nor T.I. have appeared on the show, but their shadows linger over it. Toya remains close with Wayne's mother, Jacita, while her own mother struggles with drugs. As well, Toya grapples with her continued feelings for Wayne, whom she divorced in 2006. When a friend offers to set her up with a new man who may be marriage material, Toya says, "Don't hook me up with that!"

And T.I. is a needling phantom, checking in on the phone, wondering about Tiny's whereabouts (the first two episodes take place before his incarceration). T.I., Tiny says, doesn't want her working, but of course, she is working every moment the cameras are on.

"I want to get involved in music again," she says, "but I'm still worried about Tip getting angry." ("Tip" is T.I.'s nickname.) Self-actualization is the goal for these women (on an episode later this season, they attend an Outward Bound workshop) who have a dose of awareness their city-mates the "Real Housewives" appear to lack.

Replacing the constitutionally dull DeShawn -- in the group in Season 1 but since dropped from the show -- Kandi adds a splash of actual celebrity to "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." She's had a robust post-Xscape career as a songwriter, writing for TLC (she co-wrote the hit single "No Scrubs" with Tiny), Mariah Carey, Destiny's Child and more. (Also recommended is her 2000 solo single "Don't Think I'm Not," a sugary blend of R&B and Atlanta bass.) Her appearance on the show and her friendship with producer Dallas Austin seem like a specific rebuke to Kim, the only white cast member, who tried to work with Austin last season and who appears to be this season's villain.

On this week's season premiere, Kandi hasn't figured out how to match the high degree of tension brought to the show by the others, who persist in fine form. NeNe takes a break from cavorting with her stylist, the inimitable Dwight, to reassure viewers, "Kandi is ghetto -- you know, 'hood." Kim has split from her sugar-daddy boyfriend and is looking to launch a line of wigs. And Sheree has been forced into a smaller home after her previous one was foreclosed upon, a casualty of her acrimonious divorce proceedings.

On "Real Housewives of Atlanta," drama is contagious. During the premiere, the housewives attend the birthday party of the actress-comedian Niecy Nash, who seems none too thrilled to be posing for pictures with Kim and who asks Lisa about ongoing tensions among the "Housewives." That's too much Internet for her.

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