Monica: Despite travails, an R&B singer returns to form
Although the R&B singer is dressed head to toe in black, she's wearing an ear-to-ear smile as she sings the title track to her sixth album, “Still Standing,” a gospel-tinged testimonial of survival and resilience, during a recent two-night, sold-out stint at downtown Los Angeles’ Club Nokia.
Despite the heavy lyrics in this particular song, there is great reason for the 29-year-old to be smiling these days, given the past year she's had.
With a slew of personal and professional setbacks behind her -- she witnessed an ex-boyfriend commit suicide, another ex-lover is in jail after being found guilty of murder and her last album was considered a commercial failure –- she's returned to music after more than four years away.
When “Still Standing” was released earlier this year, it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop album chart and at No. 2 on the Top 200 and digital albums charts, according to Nielsen SoundScan. A welcome change for the singer, whose last album, 2006’s “The Makings of Me,” with its more urban leanings, was her lowest-selling effort yet.
Monica is aware that much has changed since the days when she ruled the charts in the early '90s, alongside such other teen queens Brandy, Destiny’s Child and the late Aaliyah. While Beyoncé stepped out from Destiny’s Child and became Beyoncé, and a laundry list of single-named divas crammed the airwaves with a blurry mix of R&B/hip-hop/pop, Monica had her own ups and downs as she tried to compete in the world of rump-shaking urban music, something that didn’t always work as she navigated the terrain.
“A lot of people don’t realize I was only 12 years old when I recorded the first album [‘Miss Thang’]. They don’t realize how young I was … but the great thing about it all was that it was all about the music,” she said during a break from the "Passion, Pain and Pleasure" tour, on which she was the supporting act for crooner Trey Songz. “We weren’t nearly as concerned with what we were gonna wear and all these other things that have kind of taken precedent. It was about the music in those times.”
She is humble when discussing the industry, calling artists such as herself and Brandy (the two snagged a Grammy for their duet “The Boy Is Mine”) some of the “fortunate ones” to be able to emerge when they did. She burst on the scene in work boots and denim, letting her voice and not her figure take center stage. Monica credits her recent triumphs to ignoring industry pressures and following her instincts -- and her two sons' signals.
“I know that I have two young sons that are watching me on a daily basis," she says. "They will have to be able to look to me and be able to feel good about the person that raised them. I think about my kids and how they’ll feel even before I record certain records.”
The release of "Still Standing" was preceded by her BET reality show of the same name, which followed her recording process while balancing her life as a full-time mother. The premiere episode garnered more than 3 million viewers, making it the second-highest series debut in the history of the network. She is allowing the cameras back into her life for a second season.
“I had a lot of things take place personally, so we prolonged taping the show so that I could really get some things in order. Now that I’m in a great place, I felt like it made sense to have the show follow me around,” she said. (Monica has split with the father of her two children and is now dating Lakers player Shannon Brown.)
Despite this almost "second chance" renewal of her career (she is reworking her new single "Here I Am" as a duet with Songz), her priority remains her two boys: Romelo and Rodney.
“They have been very patient throughout this tour, but my 5-year-old just said, ‘Mama, I love the bus, but is this almost over?’ That means it’s time for me to give them my undivided attention for a month or two. [But] I’ll go back in the studio,” she promised. “I want to find that balance again of catering to my relationship, my children and my family. But not disappearing in the way I have the last time.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Monica. Credit: Tony Duran