1995. A big chunk of us were still trying to figure out exactly what type of freak Adina Howard was and trying to get high off of the love from the “Brown Sugar” D’Angelo was bringing to the party. While the remainder of us were busy hitting the nearest pool party, chasing “Waterfalls” and getting our up-do’s ready for one of the biggest years in Freaknik history. 1995 took us on a “Fantasy” with Mariah, reminded us to party on Friday with Montell Jordan, and let us know just exactly what we reminded R. Kelly of. In that same year though, a young, beautiful, and no mess implementer by the single name of Monica stepped on the scene and caught the attention of everyone in sight.
Equipped with a fierce pixie cut, huge voice, and even bigger attitude, the then 14-year-old songstress made her impact and let everyone know that she was – without a doubt – here to stay. Releasing her aptly titled debut album Miss Thang, Mo’s vocals, demeanor, and bright smile proved that producer Dallas Austin had found yet another diamond vocalist in the streets of Atlanta, GA.
Fast-forward 20 years, eight albums-with more than 25 million sold, and numerous acting roles later, here we have the 35-year-old Monica – who now places Brown at the end of her name. Overcoming adversity, building a family, standing firm, and remaining relevant in her lengthy and successful career, the mother of three has had more success than you can imagine – and not just in the form of singing. Perhaps one of the most humble artists walking this earth, Monica has amassed an incredible following and reputation for being a lover and genuine talent who has no fear of transparency.
Taking a short hiatus from the music, Mo’ is back and ready to bring the heat. Her eighth studio album, Code Red, is out in stores today and according to her, fans will get what they’ve been waiting for. Prior to its release though, we got the opportunity to catch up with the vocalist – who we can almost confidently say has never missed a note in her life – to discuss the new album, her musical evolution, being a believer, working with some of the greats, and so much more.
Take a look at our exclusive interview below!
I am a huge fan of yours. I have been in love with you since I was a kid!
[Laughs] Thank you!
Eight albums and basically 20 years later. That’s a great feat that only most artists dream of! A lot of people can’t get to this point. What do you think that main difference has been from your initial album – Miss Thang – to where you are now with Code Red?
I mean there are a lot of differences honestly. Your music grows with you and as you evolve, it evolves. There are a few things that you can hear, and of course the change in voice since the age of 12 to now being 35. I think one of the main things that keeps me connected to the fans is the watching me go through a lot of things and experience a lot of things. I didn’t have any shame about it. I made records about it because I feel like we’re all the same. We may have different occupations, but I eat, sleep, breathe, cry, and feel just like anyone else. So that’s just the connection between the people and I for all these years.
I think for me, I’ve listened to all of your albums. With Miss Thang, I was much younger back then and when I got up to After The Storm, I was like ‘Oh no, I can get it.’ I can say I grew with you. The things you talked about on that album and The Boy Is Mine, I was in each of those phases as you were singing about them. It felt very relatable and it made me feel like it made sense.
Right, right. That’s how you connect with people.
So, for your albums that you have been creating, I know that it’s been difficult for you to grow up in the limelight. How do you think you’ve handled that from being 12 to now being 35? You’ve done a great job of kind of keeping your life private, but how did you manage to do that?
I think because I’ve always been an open book anyway. I’m very transparent. If you ask a question, I answer it straight up. For me, I feel like I’m a regular, every day person. Everything that takes place, even though I may not divulge every detail of it, there’s no shame in where I’ve been or where I’m going. So as far as growing up in front of the public eye, I dealt with it very good because I have an amazing family. And it was good that I’ve always lived in Atlanta so I could keep planted firm in the thing that I know are most important. I’ve never been so concerned with being popular that I just sell my soul to do whatever. I always did what felt right for me and what made sense for me and I don’t compare myself to other people, nor do I judge other people when they do it a different way. So, I really don’t have any downside to growing up in the public eye as far as I see it because it’s really all I know. I see myself just like I see everyone else. It’s always made it a lot easier for me, even as I was going through things. People really root for me and they really support me and I think it’s just, I have a genuine love for them. So there’s been no weird transition as far as from childhood to adulthood for me. Especially not in the music industry at all.
Speaking of having a kind and genuine heart, I follow you on social media and I know how loving you are to your fans. I’ve seen you post and tell them to come pick up tickets because they couldn’t get any. What do you feel has been the basis of your genuineness and you always remaining humble? Most people feel as if since they’ve made it, they can’t be as nice or as humble. What do you think keeps you grounded?
Oh yeah. I never wanted to be that person – especially when I was signed and moving around and watching and seeing what money and fame does to people. There are a lot of people that I know that basically now, I have to just say I knew them – I don’t know them because once they get successful, who they’ve become is just not something I was fond of. I felt like I always wanted to be me; I always wanted to be the person my mother raised, no matter what came from this lifestyle or my music and what could happen with it. It was just important to me because I believe you reap what you sow. When I’m giving away tickets – even though those were shows that were selling out – it’s a lot of people that just aren’t as fortunate right now that are going through hard times and who have other things going on and I know what that’s like. I know what it feels like. I just keep my heart connected to the people because that’s truly the reason why I got in it. I didn’t know anything about the music industry, per se, and in 1995, there were definitely no guarantees so I just never lost that. The people are important and to me, who do you make the music for if it’s not for them? So why not give back to them after 20 years of you loving and supporting them?
You’ve been very vocal about why you named the album Code Red and what it stands for. There are people, however, who see no issue with where R&B is currently. What would you say to further prove your point and what do you think artists can do to improve where we are?
I think they just have to lead by example. When you’re creating, create the type of music you want to hear. When you present it to the public, even if it’s not instantaneous that they get it, your sincerity will come across eventually. I’m not one of those artists who has an issue with the current state of music – I don’t have an issue with it. I think that’s it’s OK that the genres of music that are big now are big – that’s fine. I don’t think one has to capitalize off the other. My issues is that this generation needs the type of music that we had to grow up to as well. They need music that still has a message. They need to hear about love and respecting one another and understanding that a lot of what is talked about now is not all there is to life. I think for us when you think that we were just talking about songs like SWV’s “Weak.” I remember hearing “Forever My Lady” at my 8th grade dance and just thinking “Wow, this is an amazing song,” and getting that same feeling and remembering exactly where I was. That means it’s timeless. Timeless music still has to be significant because this generation doesn’t have anything to hold on to or help them through. You know, music for a lot of people is therapy. But if the therapy is just as ra ra as what you’re going through, how are you actually getting through? That’s why I always say we need to have this music as well. In addition, I don’t feel like one or the other has to be chosen or given more life than the other. I just think that this shouldn’t be a genre that is forgotten about or canceled out by what’s happening now.
I know you’ve had a very long term musical relationship with Jermaine Dupri, Bryan Michael Cox, and a few other hitmakers. For this current album, who did you revisit from your previous albums to 100% have on this new album?
Polow Da Don – he’s one person. He absolutely gets it and I don’t say that because we’re related. I say it because he gets what music is and what music was. He’s been in it for such a long time that he’s able to really determine the kind of records that make sense to me and the ones that don’t. There are some really great records that have been #1 chart-toppers that will come to me first and I’ll say it’s not for me and that’s OK. So I have to go and grab people that get it and get me and get how I am as an artist. Another person is Missy Elliott. I just don’t do an album without working with her because our friendship dictates the music and that always works to my advantage that she understands the message that I’m trying to get across. A female’s perspective, is always very different from a male’s so she brings this much needed balance when we’re recording. This was my first time working with Timbaland, but he absolutely got it. He created a sound that he put on the album that he calls Opera Noir. So, I was just really fortunate this time around.
If you had to choose your favorite track on the album, what would it be and why?
I don’t have a favorite. I really don’t. But I will say one of my favorites is called “I Know,” and “I Know” is just about losing all the baggage that you can kinda start to carry. Not just as a woman, but men too. A lot of men have been hurt and different things have happened to them as they dated and experienced life. “I Know” is a ballad and it’s beautifully written, but it’s really about the love I share with my husband and what’s happened since I really let go of my past and really forgave everyone in it and enjoy my life without all these different barriers and hangups and issues surrounding me.
I know you’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of artists. Who has been your favorite artist to work with and what project was it in particular?
One of my favorite I would have to say would be Missy. It didn’t make her album – the records we did – but any time we work together. I would have to say still my favorite is from my After The Storm project with “So Gone.” It was one of the biggest records from it. “So Gone” she actually created by listening to a phone conversation of mine and it was just so amazing to me that someone know me so well and create a record like that. It still feels good this many years later. When I think back, that’s just one of my favorite moments.
I love that song and that album. I know you’re on tour right now, so what has been your most gratifying moment so far?
Seeing the smile, the laughter, and sometimes the tears when I look out into the audience because I have my in-ears in, which is where I can listen to myself and hear things clearly and it just means so much to me that people are still connecting with these songs and at this point, some of them are 20 years old. There’s nothing more gratifying than to see people enjoy what you’ve created. You know I pretty much gave my life to be apart of this thing we call music and it all seems so simple sometimes when you see me on stage, but there’s a process that been taking place from when I was 12-years-old ’til now. I didn’t go to prom and hang out with my friends. I really worked and moved around hoping that one day people will love and enjoy my music. So to look out in the audience and see that it’s happening is no better feeling. No better.
People like you and Tamia are considered OG’s of R&B and really give us that sense of love in music that we don’t seem to get all the time. What do you feel makes you stay in that lane? What keeps you coming back to that sound?
For me, music has always been one of my loves. So to express my love and do it in songs, it’s just so natural and organic for me. It’s funny because even when I was going through a lot and I wasn’t in love, I was creating records like “Love All Over Me.” It’s really special when I sit down and think of how powerful it is because I kinda spoke what ended up happening into existence because I met my husband at the video shoot for “Love All Over Me.” So, you just never know what’s in store for you. I always tell people when one door closes, you have to trust and have faith that another one will open and everything that’s for you will come pouring right out of it. And that’s just how I think, and how I feel, and how I live. So it’s important that my music reflects that. There’s lots of other music that I like, but I might not necessarily sing because it’s just not a reflection of me or who I am. My family is absolutely everything to me. I just do what’s authentically me.
I wish more people would embrace that though. There are so many people out here struggling to figure out who they are that we don’t get them. It’s like we get a different them in everything that they do.
It’s not the easiest thing especially when you have to be comfortable with walking away if needed. That’s not a comfort that many people are afforded in a lot of different ways whether it’s the monetary part, addicted to the fame part of it all, or just addicted to the lifestyle as a whole. You just never know. But I’ve always been okay with walking away at any point that this just wasn’t good for my soul. I’m really grateful to God that I’m still able to make music that still feels good to my soul because I would absolutely leave it alone if at any point I was forced to do something other than what I believe in. But some people aren’t okay with that sacrifice.
That’s amazing that you’re so grounded. I’m so thankful for you just being a woman of God and showing people that it’s OK to put that out there, but still sing the music that you sing and still know yourself and who you came from. In the industry, I see a lot of people get lost.
Yeah, they do. I know who I am and whose I am just because I have a really, really amazing family. I think a lot of people…now you just don’t see families the way you used to which is another reason that I always share my children and just how enjoyable being in a real relationship can be if you allow it. God forbids if something happens and you have to dust yourself off and put your pieces back together, then whatever else is for you will be out there. Hopefully, I can lead by example like my mother did for me. I always tell people I’m a believer and sometimes when we mention Christ, people assume you’re preaching at them or now you can’t do certain things. I mean of course there are some things that you don’t desire when you’ve come to a certain place in your life. But by no means am I a pastor out here saying that I’m living this perfect life, but I am in pursuit of everything that embodies happiness, and love, and joy, and all that good stuff. I think the misconception around being what a believer really is sometimes makes people kinda stray away from speaking on how they feel and how they really live and overcome different things.
If you could have penned or sang any track from anyone in the past, who would it have been and why?
Probably Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before.” Anybody that ever knew me was like “Oh my God, you could’ve killed that!” I mean of course she killed it herself, but that’s one from back in that day that people would be like, “I could hear you singing this.”
You’ve done a lot of acting as well. Are there any new roles coming up in the future that we can expect to see you in?
I’ve been studying a lot. I’ve been really fortunate to have some good people encourage me to get back in the swing of it since I took a long hiatus from it. So Will Packer and I have talked about a few different things and finding the right coach. I wanna be great at it. I don’t want to do a mediocre job at it especially since I took such a long time away from it. So, I’m just getting my acting chops warmed back up first [laughs].
CODE RED is in stores and at all digital retailers now!!
–Interview by Ni’Kesia Pannell