Atlanta R&B Star Returns to the Spotlight

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

Whatever you do, don’t go over to Monica’s house for movie night. You won’t have a good time. She’ll ruin the whole experience for you.

You know how some folks narrate from their seat? Girl, don’t go in there! Why did she have to trip like that? Okay, she’s not quite that bad, but she does admit to being pretty darn close. “I have this big movie thing that I get into,” begins the charming cinematic buff. “I go through these stages of watching movies and then I break down the movie. I have this gift of predicting everything that’s going to happen. I’m usually right. It’s not a gift that I’ll get paid for. But you know, it’s pretty fun when we’re at home watching movies.”

Oh, and it’s even worse at the actual theater.

As Monica explains it, “Everybody that goes to the movies with me is like, ‘Please stop!’ I ruin it for everybody else. I’ll tell you what I watched last night [on DVD,] a movie called Stepfather. It was good. I predicted it, but it was still good.”

It makes perfect sense that Monica would be so sharp when it came to deciphering motion picture plotlines. Being someone who’s experienced dramatic highs and thunderous blows, nothing thrown her way, be it on the big screen or in real life, catches her off guard. She’s seen it all before.

So, when a thriller like Stepfather comes along, she already knows the score. Or, when her PR team sandwiches a Georgia Music interview between a taping of BET’s popular 106 & Park and a late lunch, it’s no problem either.

Speaking of BET, when the entertainment channel put together a telethon to raise money for Haiti earthquake victims, it was a no-brainer that Monica would pitch in with a performance. “I’ve always respected Wyclef [Jean]’s ambitious nature about his country,” she details. “When they asked me to do it, it was just instantaneous for me to be a part of it.”

Really, the relationship Monica has with the music network seems to be good for both parties. The Atlanta-born singer needed an outlet to chronicle her story of juggling an active home, troubled past and revitalized career. The show, Monica: Still Standing, wound up a ratings hit BET is thinking about carrying for a second season.

Monica CD Listening Party for BET

Monica at a CD Listening Party at Doppler Studios in Atlanta in July 2009.  Photo courtesy BET/The Picture Group

“I didn’t mind being honest with the people and allowing them to see me at my best and at my worst,” says the part-time actress who had a bit part in ATL and starred in the made-for-MTV Love Song. “I’ve always been very honest about things that have happened in my life, whether it was good or bad. It feels like I’m one of [my fans] versus something that’s untouchable or something that was made to be perfect. They see me like a sister, like a friend. They can relate more. I think that brought us all closer. Reality TV gets kind of a bad rap, but the fact of the matter is that it can be whatever your reality is. My show wasn’t structured like others because it was just about stuff affecting my life on a daily basis. But I think it keeps people close to you.”

An education

Monica Denise Arnold’s big break happened like something straight from a big studio screenplay. The young singer sung a Whitney Houston song at a local Atlanta venue, was overheard by budding music bigwig Dallas Austin and almost immediately signed to his upstart label, Rowdy Records.

Austin, his crew of producing protégés and Arnold, a former choir member with a voice from above, made great music together. They would put their finest sessions together for the then 14-year-old’s 1995 debut, Miss Thang. The album did huge numbers, selling over three million copies and spawning two mega hits, “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” and “Before You Walk Out Of My Life.”

The young lady’s ascent to superstardom couldn’t have been more out-of-this-world had James Cameron been behind the camera. Of the dreamy period, she adds, “The reason my teenage years in the music business were so enjoyable was because my mother always told me that as long as this was something that I wanted to do, it was OK.”

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

But Arnold, now a 29-year-old mother of two, cautions parents and prodigies about fame’s trappings: “I think what scares me with people who bring me demos and things like that is that it seems some parents live vicariously through their children. They push them. They almost force them, even if they love music, into different areas and different things with the hope of success or becoming rich and famous. I think that would absolutely be the wrong thing to do. I think that the music business is only enjoyed when you can enjoy it.”

After Miss Thang’s canoodling with Billboard ended, Monica shied from the spotlight for a few years. She put the focus on her books, graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA. She wound up switching labels around this time too, going from Austin’s Rowdy to Clive Davis’ Arista.

The sophomore album was ‘98’s The Boy Is Mine. Carried by the Brandy-featuring title smash—“The Boy Is Mine,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group and sat atop the U.S. Billboard 100 chart for a record 13 weeks—and other singles “First Night” and “Angel of Mine,” Monica, 17 at the time, again went triple platinum and became certified as a teen sensation.

“I think that I enjoyed my career most because it was what I really wanted to do,” she reflects. “I didn’t mind having a tutor and never experiencing prom. I didn’t mind when people were having dances or enjoying different things that I was on tour, sometimes doing two shows a night. That was really what I wanted.”

Indeed, stardom comes with sacrifice.

The Blind Side

Stardom can also extract a price. Fame and fortune were awarded to Monica almost overnight. The tears and unspeakable anguish followed a similar script. If Monica comes across prevailing but a bit perturbed with love in song, it’s no act. Her heart truly has been through a lot.

Her eyes have been through even more.

On July 18, 2000, she joined boyfriend Jarvis “Knot” Weems at a cemetery to visit the burial site of Weems’ brother, who’d passed away in a car accident. When the two got back to the vehicle, Jarvis pulled out a gun and committed suicide right in front of Monica.

More heartache would center around former fiancée, Corey “C-Murder” Miller, the brother of popular ’90s rapper Master P. On Jan. 12, 2002, C-Murder and 16-year-old Steve Thomas got into an altercation at a New Orleans-area nightclub. The young man was beaten and shot in the chest. After seven years of trials and mistrials, Miller was formally convicted of second-degree murder on Aug. 11, 2009. Under Louisiana law, Miller must serve a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

When Monica finally decided it was the right time to return to the studio in ’02, she and longtime collaborators like Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri put together the aptly titled collection All Eyez On Me. After so much darkness and despair, the soul music world wondered how she’d respond. Sadly, scheduling blunders, bootleggers and a Beyoncé boom killed the project’s momentum and it was shelved.

Undaunted, Monica salvaged a couple of All Eyez’s songs and put them onto her ’03 disc, After the Storm, a platinum-selling exhale that was sparked by the Missy Elliott-produced winner “So Gone.” Monica tells, “When you look at records like ‘So Gone,’ [Missy] gets who I am. There haven’t been very many people to do that. But it’s very hard to really get into somebody’s head and make things make sense. She’s been able to do that for not only me, but [artists like the late] Aaliyah, Fantasia, so many other people.”

But while industry friends are kept near and dear to Monica, she’d like to thank her earthly mother and Heavenly Father most for guidance in the darkest hours.

“Today is today and tomorrow is brand new,” tells Monica, reciting a favorite quote from her mother, Marilyn Best, a Methodist minister. “That was something she always taught me growing up. Her faith is something she instilled in me. She spoke a lot about Christ being a believer, even when you make mistakes. Know that he’s a God of a second chance. She taught me about how you grow and how you move forward from your own mistakes. I think that’s what really kept me going because the music industry is not going to do it.”

Monica and another love interest, rapper Rodney “Rocko” Hill, Jr., had a son, “Lil’ Rocko” III, in 2005. The couple added a second son, Romelo, to the picture in late ’08.

“When all those things started happening to me,” Monica adds, “my mother never left my side. She pretty much stayed right by me. When I gave birth to my oldest son, she left Delta Airlines after 37 years of doing something that she loved. She just always put her children first. That gave me a lot to always fall back on. And she’s not a celebrity mom. She’s not into the music industry at all. She never wanted to be a singer or an actress. She couldn’t care less about this.”

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

Monica. Photo by Tony Duran

Up In the Air

The first time you watch the video for “Everything To Me,” the lead single off the singer’s eagerly awaited new album, Still Standing, you have an intuitive moment like Monica so proudly boasted about in the open. Honestly, did you know how the whole story of an obsessive fan stalking Monica’s husband was going to play out? No one else did either. The Benny Boom-directed clip is creative, showing off Monica’s leading lady chops. But arguably most important, the video not so subtly hints that, no matter what comes Monica’s way, she’s going to make it through.

“I think I’m most proud of the fact that I did songs on this album that I love,” the songstress details about Still Standing. “I didn’t do not one song that I didn’t love, believe in or feel was a good representation of who I am now. Sometimes you make those mistakes because you hear constantly that you have to keep up with the times.”

She, of course, heard all of that before dropping her last effort, 2006’s The Making of Me. Monica took others’ advice and did a largely radio-friendly CD anchored by the snap music ode, “Everytime Tha Beat Drop.” Not coincidentally, the album, which moved about 320,000 units, was one of her most poorly performing at the cash register.

“I learned after the last album that the reality of it is that we’re all different by design,” says Monica, who’s also working on a children’s clothing line. “People may love me for one thing, the next artist for another thing and the next one for the next thing. You don’t have to keep up with any particular time. I took this album back to [Miss Thang]. I didn’t think about any of the political issues. I didn’t look at my record contract. I didn’t go into any of that. I just went in the studio and worked with people that love music the same way I did. And to me, the end result was just better.”

Still, Best Buy sales and iTunes chart positions have to come into the equation at some point, don’t they?

“Yeah,” continues the artist with six No. 1 R&B singles over her career. “But it’s not something I let steal the joy of putting an album out and what it takes to really work an album. First-week numbers, or even first-month numbers, aren’t really a representation of what an album can really be. If you work it and have great live shows, you’ll see things change over the course of you promoting it. I don’t get too hung up on it.”

And you can hear it all through Still Standing, a project Monica repeatedly refers to as real R&B. The Ne-Yo-produced “Stay or Go” is the finest-sounding ultimatum a guy’s ever received. “Superman” is a simple yet sexy dedication to the Clark Kent in her private life. The usually jovial Ludacris, the godfather to Monica’s children, sounds as dapper as you can remember on the head-held-high title cut. And then there’s “Mirrors,” a powerful moment Monica describes simply as “looking in the mirror and being happy with what you see.”

Fans and music critics likely will respond favorably to this new project. It’s a complete return to the Monica they’ve come to know and love across six albums and a life’s worth of emotions. Still Standing is the ideal next chapter to a true American success story.

“I look at success as being something that can only be real to you if you’re genuinely happy,” Monica concludes. “I think of all the extremely wealthy people that are so miserable that I see on the regular basis. To me, that’s not really success. I feel successful because I wake up and I’m happy with my life. I’m happy with the fact that I have two children. I’m happy with the fact that I make music that I love.

“I’m okay with the idea that if I sell 10 records instead of 10 million and it was something that was a really great representation of me, I’ve done a great thing because I’ve had it the other way. I really think that success is absolutely not defined by the things that you’ve done but by the things that are most important to you, the things that you can look around and see that make you happy.”

Though movie night at the Arnold household is just a few days away, for some reason, it doesn’t feel like this new Monica is part of any Hollywood act.

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