January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

DECKED OUT IN BLACK VELVET slacks and a silk-lined mink jacket, Keith Sweat looks as if he’s ready to drop to his knees and croon one of those lush ballads that helped make him R&B’s hottest-selling Lover Man. But Sweat is all business as he appraises the Industry, the exclusive boîte (decorated with portraits of himself) that he recently opened in Atlanta’s Buckhead district. “This is a spot for people in ‘the industry” says the onetime commodities trader of the club that has hosted Olympic athletes and rap’s LL Cool J and Sean “Puffy” Combs. “There’s no other place in Atlanta where celebrities can come and just be themselves. We’re people too.”

Actually, Sweat seemed to be on his way out of show business last spring when he announced plans to become a restaurateur. To some this looked like the last stop before infomercialville for the 40-year-old singer, who, despite having sold more than a million copies of each of his first four albums, abruptly quit touring and recording in 1993. Then last June, after a three-year layoff during which he launched his own Keia Records label and produced top-selling albums by the R&B groups Silk and Kut Klose, Sweat released his fifth CD, Keith Sweat, which has since sold more than 2 million copies. Two of its singles—”Twisted” and “Nobody”—also became Top 5 Billboard pop hits. To sweeten the comeback, Sweat will perform at next week’s American Music Awards (ABC, Jan. 27, 8 p.m. ET), where he is a contender for fans’ favorite male R&B performer and his Keith Sweat CD is up for favorite album.

Sweat credits the appeal of his music to its emotional honesty in an era often defined by crude or politically strident lyrics. “If I can’t feel it, I don’t want to write it,” he says. “My music is true-to-life relationship music.” While he prefers to play down another aspect of his appeal—”I don’t try to be a sex symbol,” he insists—his fans do no such thing. “Women go crazy for him,” says Alan Light, editor of Vibe magazine. “He’ll sing a ballad, drop to one knee, pour the champagne and roses and give the whole act. There aren’t many like him anymore.”

Even as a kid growing up in Harlem, where he avoided the grim temptations of drugs and crime, Sweat cultivated his female audience. “When he was 4 years old, he’d go outside and sing to the girls,” says his mother, Juanita, 65, a former beautician who raised five children alone after her husband, Charles, a factory worker, died when Keith was 17. “I’d say, ‘Stop that noise.’ ”

Sweat harbored his musical ambitions while studying communications at City College in Manhattan and working as an assistant commodities trader on Wall Street. “With the money I’d make there, I made demos in the studio,” he says. “My desire was so great I thought, ‘I can’t lose.’ ”

Sweat didn’t quit his job at Paine-Webber until his 1987 debut album Make It Last Forever went to No. 1 on the R&B charts. Even then he thought of himself not as a pop star but as, he says, “a businessman.” Indeed, Sweat later moved to Atlanta because “it was a city I could build a franchise in. I could build an empire.”

So far his realm includes the Industry restaurant, his eight-bedroom mansion in nearby Alpharetta and the Sweat Shop, a state-of-the-art recording studio in his basement. As beloved subjects he counts son Jordan, 2, and daughters Keia, 6, and Keisha, 8. Sweat, who is separated and not seeing anyone, refuses to discuss custody arrangements or even to identify the mothers of his children. He does, however, dedicate his new album to the kids, calling them his Dream Team.

Currently completing a tour, the ever-ambitious performer is pondering yet another career move. “I’d like to pursue movies,” he says. “I’ve been an entrepreneur, an artist, a producer. Now it’s time to go to the next level.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

DON SIDER in Atlanta

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