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Next From the Diva Machine

It's not entirely coincidence that Monica seems poised to follow in the footsteps of Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston.

July 07, 1998|ELYSA GARDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Given the prominent role that Arista Records President Clive Davis has played in the careers of so many top pop stars, it's easy to imagine industry insiders sending him congratulatory notes over what seems at first blush to be his latest master stroke with Monica.

How better for the man who helped guide the development of such pop-soul divas as Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton to launch the new album by the 17-year-old singer than by teaming her with established teen star Brandy on "The Boy Is Mine," the record that has been the nation's No. 1 single for six weeks?

The single, understandably, is the title track of Monica's album, which is due in stores next Tuesday.

But the record, a key element in what is certain to be one of the most talked-about album launches of the season, was in some ways accidental.

Rather than something the label masterminded, it resulted from a phone call between the two young singers. It's a case history that shows how even the most carefully executed game plans often benefit from a little old-fashioned good fortune.

"People had the idea that Brandy and I were rivals, which was just false," explains Monica, settling back on a couch in her midtown Manhattan hotel room.

"We had only really seen each other in passing at awards shows and things, but I had always commended her for her accomplishments. . . . Then [Brandy's label] Atlantic Records called and told me that she wanted to do this song with me."

In a separate interview, Brandy, who co-wrote the song with 20-year-old R&B prodigy Rodney Jerkins and three other collaborators, said she originally recorded the song alone. After listening to the result, however, she and Jerkins thought it would work better as a duet.

Brandy said one reason she thought of Monica was that the teaming would help combat the rumors that the teen singers didn't get along.

But she was also enticed, no doubt, by the selling power that Monica had already shown on her own, both with her double-platinum debut album, 1996's "Miss Thang," and with the Top 10 single "For You I Will," which was on last year's "Space Jam" soundtrack.

If "The Boy Is Mine," which was recorded in Los Angeles for Brandy's new album, fell into Arista's lap, Davis was quick to recognize the song's potential--which means those congratulatory notes may still be in order.

According to Dallas Austin, who co-produced the recording with Jerkins and Brandy, the decision to make "The Boy Is Mine" the title cut of Monica's album came fairly late in the game--right after the single was released by Atlantic.

"It was Clive's idea," says Austin, the album's co-executive producer with Davis. "We wanted to reflect that it was a duet, not just a song on Brandy's album featuring Monica. We wanted it to be as big as [the 1983 Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney duet] 'The Girl Is Mine.' "

Davis and Austin ended up bringing Jerkins in to join a list of high-profile writers and producers recruited for Monica's album. Others include noted pop-ballad tunesmith David Foster and frequent Mariah Carey collaborator Jermaine Dupri, who contributed the pulsating second single, "The First Night."

"We were very excited about the project," says Davis. "It seemed like a win-win situation, and that's what happened. We hope this will confirm the fact that Monica is a major, major new star."

Says Vibe magazine editor in chief Danyel Smith, a more objective observer, "There's no doubt in my mind that Monica has the voice to take her to the highest levels of pop superstardom. The only question now is whether she has that charisma that people like Houston and Janet Jackson have--that special, mysterious quality that makes a soul-diva genius."

*

In conversation, Monica seldom comes across as a diva of any sort. A lanky, soft-spoken young woman with a disarmingly earnest smile, she exudes the buoyant, sometimes awkward energy of youth, whether leaning forward to giggle at a TV sitcom she's watching intermittently or receiving compliments on her singing with a polite, slightly embarrassed "thank you."

Certainly, it would be tempting to cast this budding star as a naive muse for the multi-platinum instincts of Davis or the Svengali-like ambitions of Austin, the Atlanta-based R&B savant who discovered her more than five years ago and still writes and produces most of her material.

But Monica insists that in working on the new album, her creative relationship with Austin was very much a collaborative one, in which he used her ideas to fashion "lyrics that fit the tracks he was working on"--typically sultry, groove-driven numbers that emphasize her husky, dramatic alto, which invites comparisons to Braxton.

The songs cast her in such roles as a rueful lover who pines for her old beau on the lithe, lusty "Take Him Back" and as a siren who artfully seduces a new guy on the slamming hip-hop confection "Cross Da Room."

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