“What I'm about to do, I'm sure nobody expected,” Sisqó boasted on the opening track of his debut solo album, Unleash The Dragon. And he was right: for three years, the singer experienced a startling level of success, first as the lead vocalist of Dru Hill, and then as a solo superstar.
The ‘90s R&B group commanded the genre in a short time span thanks to its first two best-selling records, 1996’s Dru Hill and 1998’s Enter The Dru. But the joyride ended abruptly when original member Woody Rock left the group. “It's typical that labels push a lot of artists from boy bands to the forefront to have solo aspirations,” Sisqó tells Billboard. “But in actuality, I never wanted to be a solo artist. I really wanted us to be the best Boyz II Men or Jodeci that we could be -- we really looked up to them. So me going solo was kind of out of necessity.”
After finishing an overseas tour with *NSYNC and 98 Degrees, Dru Hill was asked by Will Smith to hop on the title track to 1999’s Wild Wild West soundtrack. The members couldn’t have predicted that was where their fate would change. “If you look at the beginning of the ['Wild Wild West'] video, you see four of us,” Sisqó recalls. “But at the end there's only three, because Woody decided on the set that he didn't want to be part of the group anymore. We've known each other since we were 13-14 years old, so we were going through the motions. After that, we started the American leg of the tour. The fact that we were missing a member became obvious and it seemed like the crowds were getting smaller and smaller. The dynamic of the group changed immensely.”
Dru Hill then transitioned from Island Records to Def Jam in the midst of a record label merge. "A lot of record companies at the time thought hip-hop was a fad and wasn't gonna last. With Def Jam having Dru Hill, it allowed them to be invited places they usually weren’t. So they immediately wanted an album," Sisqó explains. "I didn't want to do another Dru Hill album until Woody was ready to come back. I went to the label as asked if I could do a solo record, since Will Smith saying [my name] on 'Wild Wild West' was kind of like an alley-oop. He literally introduced me to the world."
According to the singer, Def Jam wasn't initially on board with the solo idea. "I borrowed some money from my manager and I put the album together myself," he continues. "I brought it to Def Jam and they could hear that the music was undeniable. I put the album on my label [Dragon Music Group] and sold it back to them. Once [lead single] 'Got To Get It' hit the streets, it was off and running. DJs were clamoring to get a copy of the CD."
While he didn’t have his Dru Hill family by his side, Sisqó garnered massive success by taking the solo route. Unleash The Dragon peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and helped Sisqó earn four Grammy nominations, including best new artist. The album gave way to two hit singles: the ubiquitous “Thong Song” and the tender ballad “Incomplete,” which peaked at No. 3 and No. 1 on the Hot 100, respectively. "Thong Song" even had a mini-resurgence in 2017, when Norwegian trio JCY turned the original into a tropical-pop bop (with new vocals from Sisqó), and Ludacris sampled it for "Vitamin D," featuring Ty Dolla $ign.
Along with his music, the singer's silver-dyed hair, provocative outfits and navel tattoo ignited Y2K fashion trends. "When you look at millennial artists, they're not afraid to be themselves and expressive,” he says. “I like to believe that myself, along with Missy Elliott, helped to bump the norm."
Ahead of its 20th anniversary on Nov. 30, Sisqó recounts the stories behind every track on Unleash The Dragon (not including the two interludes and Dru Hill’s “Enchantment Passing Through," which was previously featured on Elton John and Tim Rice’s 1999 Aida compilation), and explains how the record helped shape the current landscape of R&B.
“Unleash The Dragon”
The whole dragon motif was something I brought from Dru Hill. We were in Chinatown for the photoshoot for our first album. The person who did the artwork had put a composite of the dragon. She said that nobody owned the design, so I said, "Well somebody owns it now!" [laughs] You know how the Rolling Stones had the lips logo? If we used this dragon, even if we're not on the radio or in the public eye, our symbol will still be there.
With my album, I turned the dragon sideways and when you do that, it ironically looks like an S. It was like when Method Man turned the Wu-Tang Clan's "W" upside down. I ended up going to Japan for my second album [2001's Return of Dragon], and I was signing autographs. All the interviewers started talking frantically and I was like, "What's going on?" They told me my signature looks like the kanji character for "dragon." I guess it was all in the stars.
"Got to Get It"
It was the first song that I had created from scratch. Whenever we came up with songs for Dru Hill, I would collaborate with the group members. We did this trip-up hi-hat and the sound we created with the snare was from scratch. And I've heard it being used several times afterward -- I wish you could copyright sounds! [laughs] I felt like it had the right drive to be the debut single.
Fun fact about the video: we shut down Hollywood Boulevard and shot right in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre. We had everything set up and right before it was time to shoot the video, I got cold feet. Not because I was afraid of heights -- we shot the video for "How Deep Is Your Love" [from the 1998 Rush Hour soundtrack] on, like, the 158th floor of a building. This was my first solo video, and I looked back and didn't see Dru Hill. I couldn't do it. It was a two-day shoot, and we shut down the video on the first day. I went all the way back to my hotel room. I thought, "What if people don't like it?" My brother told me, "Yo if you don't do it now, you'll kick yourself forever. The music is dope! It's better to do it and know what people think now than to not do it and never know." I was like, "You know what, you're right. Pass the blunt!" I don't smoke anymore though. [laughs]
So we shot everything in one day. The local police came to talk to me because I don't think anyone outside of movie shoots had ever shut down Hollywood Blvd., especially not two days in succession. We did an explosion at the end of the video, and the shockwave was so big that it blew the window out of the Disney building across the street. You could see Mickey Mouse in the street with his ears on fire and Little Mermaid's tail was on fire. I was like, “Oh no, I hope this isn't a bad omen!" But apparently it was good, because I ended up working with Disney a few months after that on the movie Snow Dogs with Cuba Gooding Jr.
"Is Love Enough"
Dru Hill was part of [record producer Warryn Campbell’s] glow-up as it relates to pop and R&B music, because he was one of the producers on "How Deep Is Your Love." So I decided to work with him again on this record. I did it with my female group at the time, LovHer. They were the girls who were dancing with me at the end of the "Got To Get It" video. They were supposed to be the female version of Dru Hill.
We ended up giving [Jodeci’s DeVanté Swing] a credit, because [the song] sounded so much like one of his, maybe it was "Forever My Lady." It's no secret that I've always been a Jodeci fan. I still don't think we got as close to the Jodeci song for him to get a credit. They were definitely an inspiration, but it's not in the key of any of their songs. It's just like with Ciara's "Promise," I love that song but it sounds like something from Prince.
"How Can I Love U 2nite"
[Dru Hill member] Nokio wrote and produced this one. If you ask me, this is the best ballad I ever sang as a solo artist. The vocal performance had so much passion, and it was super sexy. Nokio is a genius, and I guess because we worked so long together, he really knows how to get the best out of me when it comes to ballads. Uptempo tracks too, because he actually helped produced my  collaboration with DMX, "What These Bitches Want.” He knows how to come up with the kinds of records that work with my vocal style.
"Your Love Is Incredible"
That was the first song I recorded for the album. I put some feelers out and had producers send me CDs with tracks on them. I ended up choosing the Co-Stars, and we re-recorded that in one of the guy's bedroom. When I was working on "How Deep," I started singing off the top of my head. That was the first time I did that "YEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHH" ad-lib. After that, I never wrote down a lyric ever again. So every song from 1998 until now were all freestyles. Granted, I'm not straight-up freestyling -- I come up with a couple ideas of what I want to do.
And I did the whole sing-rap thing on this record -- my apologies y'all for breaking music [trends]! [laughs] R. Kelly was doing it too, but I think I hit a bigger mainstream audience with it. Now it's kind of the standard. If you're a hip-hop or R&B artist, the only way to sing an uptempo is in that style.
We had worked with Babyface on "We're Not Making Love No More," for the  Soul Food soundtrack. So I was flattered and honored that he was willing to work with me on my album. He first wanted to hear where the record was going so he could figure out where he wanted to be. He said, "You are on to something! This is nothing like what y'all have done before. I think you're about to hit the next level in your career."
That whole Spanish [influence]... when Dru Hill first came out back in 1996, we lived in New York for two years since we were constantly at the label's office. Things were different at the start of the new millennium. You couldn't FaceTime and stuff like that, so you had to do a lot of press junkets like they do with movies. There's a large Latin community in Manhattan, and me and Nokio would walk down the street to get a sandwich and people would come up and start speaking Spanish to us. So I met a lot of Spanish girls back then as a teenager. There's also a huge Latin community out in L.A., so I made a lot of Latin friends!
When I heard Babyface's track, I was hanging with this girl and asked her to sing something sexy over it. And she just nailed it! [laughs]
So here's the story: I went on a date and saw the girl's thong. We're talking about 1998, so it was extremely taboo to wear one. I never saw one before, so she shows me and I was in awe! I was like, "What are you wearing?" She told me, "Oh this old thing? It's just a thong." [laughs] I thought it was glorious! I called my friends that night, like "Gather 'round fellas! I have to tell you a tale." Everyone leaned in and I put a flashlight under my chin. But then I was like, "Nah cut the lights on n---a, I just saw something called a thong! It's almost like dental floss, but they wear it as underwear!"
Then everybody just started leaving the room -- it was like they were on a pilgrimage to find this thing called a thong. So I'm making the album, and producers [Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson] sent me a CD with like 20 songs. At the end, there was this sample of [The Beatles’ 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby”] that was about 30 seconds. I called them back saying I needed to stretch that sample into three minutes.
While I was listening to the track, my friend Q came into the house: "I just went on this date with a girl and guess what she gave me? That thong-tha-thong-thong-THONG!" It was so funny to me, I was on the floor laughing, because he made it seem he got something that was better than money.
So I was freestyling the "Ooh that dress so scandalous" line, and I knew I wanted to mention the thong, just based on the impact it had on my group of friends. Everytime I got to the chorus, I could only think of that story my friend told me. And we ended up laughing all the way to the bank!
Originally, [critics] said "Thong Song" was a novelty song and that was the only reason why it worked. They literally dismissed the musicality of the record and saw it as a gimmick. I was trying to come up with something for the second verse, and I thought it would really dope to sing it exactly like the first, just in a different octave. Do you know how many people didn't know all three verses are exactly the same? Again, sorry for breaking music! Because now all people do is repeat things!
I think the reason why it resonated was because of the musical aspect. I know a lot of artists stole from Michael Jackson [who bought the Beatles’ publishing rights in 1985], but I wasn't gonna pay him for this sample -- he already had enough money! So I re-wrote the melody, and got some string [instrumentalists] who played the music on Star Wars. So those strings on "Thong Song" are live. I believe I put a record crackle in there to make it sound like it was authentic classical music, but we did have to pay the writers of Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca," because we mentioned it [in the lyrics]. All my lawyers told me if I sang it just a little bit different, then we wouldn't have to pay them. But then the lyric wouldn't be funny.
But going back to the musicality, there was a lot of harmony and innovation that people now 20 years later are able to appreciate the song more. The song is written in a very classical sense, no pun intended. It starts off with me singing low, then I sing-rap, then it goes into a higher register. That's what makes the song timeless.
I love this song today, but I didn't like it back then. I did the best to make my music sound completely different than what I did with Dru Hill, so if and when we ever [reunite], our sounds would be distinct. Like, Dru Hill could've never sung "Got To Get It" or "Thong Song" -- it just wouldn't fit.
When I first heard the melody for "Incomplete," I said, "Stop the record! It sounds too much like Dru Hill." I then came back to that song when I finished the album, because [former Def Jam president] Kevin Liles found it after Montell Jordan wrote it. Montell was one of the highest-selling artists in Def Jam's history, and I think he had some kind of publishing agreement with Kevin. Having a song on a Sisqó album was beneficial. So he asked me as a favor to sing "Incomplete."
I was listening to it with my face scrunched up, but when it got to the part, "Got a bank account bigger than the law should allow," that's when I realized I had to sing it. I wanted to be the only person who had that line -- it was gangster. "Incomplete" ended up being a No. 1 single instead of "Thong Song." I didn't like it, but the label invested into it, so there was politics involved.
Not a lot of male singers profess love in R&B as much anymore. One day, "Goodbye Love" by Guy was playing in my older sister's room. I began singing along to the high notes while my sister was on the phone. She had her friend on speaker and she just started screaming with excitement. Before that, I was really into dancing when I saw Michael Jackson do the moonwalk, but it wasn't until I hit that note from "Goodbye Love" that I saw the power of the R&B crooning. That's when I decided to take [singing] seriously. When I said, "Because I'm addicted to loving you baby," that was an homage to that real R&B, which was the initial reason that made me decide to do pop and R&B.