Hip-Hop

Inside Monica's Path to Independence — And Why a Country Album Is Next

Monica
Cyndi B*

Monica

When Monica signed with Rowdy Records at the age of 12, the star-to-be had one goal: “I said, ‘I want the world to know you can come from nothing and have anything you dream of that you’re willing to work for.’”

Now, at 40, with a Grammy Award and eight top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, Monica is proving that yet again with her upcoming independent debut album, Trenches, which she previewed during her 2020 Verzuz battle with Brandy and will arrive on her own label, MonDeenise Music.

Though Trenches isn’t even out, Monica is already thinking ahead to her next project: a country album. Having been inspired by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers while growing up, she recently worked in the studio with Brandi Carlile. In June, she made her country music debut, guesting on Jimmie Allen’s “Pray” alongside Little Big Town, a song she says “explains why I live the way I do — and why I love God as much as I do.”

How did you get started in music? 

I sang with my family choir. I became excited about what the music business could hold for me when my cousin would say, “You could be on everyone’s radio station.” She and I started doing talent shows. I was discovered at Center Stage [Theater in Atlanta]. I remember singing, “Greatest Love of All” [by Whitney Houston] and then leaving immediately because I didn’t want to miss my mom’s wedding rehearsal. I wanted to win because it was a $1,000 prize. Not only had I won, but producers in the city were looking for me.

You were 14 when your debut album, Miss Thang, dropped. Did you think it’d be so successful?

The greatest part of my first album is that I wasn’t expecting anything. When you’re that young, it allows you to focus on what’s most important. I made sure that when I sang, I sang with my soul. You can hear it in Miss Thang, The Makings of Me and “So Gone.” I wanted it to touch people’s souls. I think when something is authentic, people can feel it.

How have you been able to remain authentically you through the years? 

I have good, genuine people for the most part in my family, so coming up with aunts and uncles that taught me and were genuine towards me kept me grounded. No matter what was happening, good or bad, they really were there for me. That’s something I always share with people because I notice a lot of artists, they don’t have that. They may have entourages, but they don’t have family — real family that treats them with love and respect. My family was like that about me.

What inspired you to launch MonDeenise Music and release music independently?

This happened on its own. My deal [with RCA] came to an end, but throughout the process of being on a label, you learn a lot about them, and it becomes a lot easier for you to step into that type of arena and feel comfortable. It’s a very expensive thing to do but it’s extremely rewarding, because I know what’s happening in every area.

You first played the Trenches title track, which features Lil Baby and The Neptunes, during your Verzuz battle last year. Why was that the right name for this album?

[The name] Trenches came about when Pharrell [Williams] and I were talking. “Trenches” the single didn’t have a name at the time. I was explaining to him that my ultimate goal is to remain authentic and connected to my people. I said, “One of the key elements is that a lot of the people I love are in the trenches.” I’ve had so much happen over the last couple of years that I am continuously dealing with. My uncle was killed [as I was finishing] the album [at the top of the year], and that brought things to a complete hold. It’s really difficult, but that’s a part of life and that’s what I want to continue to share.

Looking back on Verzuz, how did it feel to bury the hatchet with Brandy?

If there was a hatchet, I buried it many years ago. But I [did] not verbally [say] that to her, because we don’t have a reason to have an issue. The promotion of “The Boy Is Mine” and everything else was made really complex by other people, not by us.

We really didn’t know each other. We had not spent any extensive amount of time around one another. It was the unfortunate pitfalls of the music industry and them putting women at each other’s throats. At that time, they were putting kids at each other’s throats. There were skits about us. There were people choosing sides. That’s why I’m not a big fan of when they put women at each other’s throats, because I know all too well how real it can become.

Those things festered and became very real over time. It was important for us to have the conversation that we had, but we had it just before the whole world saw us sitting next to each other [during Verzuz].

“Pray” with Jimmie Allen and Little Big Town is your country music debut, but you were already working on your country album. What encouraged you to break into country music? 

Jimmie Allen is an incredible guy who loves his family and knows they’ve brought him through a tremendous amount of things. That’s what we related most about. Jimmie didn’t call me for “Pray” because he heard I was doing a country album, no one knew. He called because he wanted me on it, that means it was meant [to be].

I met Little Big Town when Brandi Carlile and I were in the studio working on my country album — it may be out before the end of the year — and I heard harmonies up the hallway. That turned into them participating on “Pray,” so it was one of those real organic situations after Jimmie called me about doing the record.

I grew up loving country music and my stepfather, who raised me, is a Methodist minister, but he also drove buses and he would take us to Nashville, Gatlinburg and Dollywood in Tennessee. I became a really big fan of Dolly Parton, at about 8 or 9 years old. That was my real introduction to country music. Shortly after, it was Kenny Rogers. I started listening to the depth of the songs and the fact that they were unafraid to say whatever it was they felt. I felt like this was a great time for me to really step into an area that I’ve always admired and loved. We’re just getting started, but I have so enjoyed it and been welcomed with open arms.

Who would you still love to collaborate with?

Mary J. Blige is the first person that comes to mind, simply because our friendship is next level. She tells the truth in her music. She’s OK with who she is. She is definitely one of the people that paved the way for me to be able to speak and live in my truth.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 7, 2021 issue of Billboard.