This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we catch up with R&B singer Tamia — who had a pair of 1998’s signature R&B hits with “Imagination” and “So Into You” — about her memories of ’98, and the music she’s working on now.
Though she was a rookie when she entered the music industry in 1998, Tamia’s spellbinding runs separated her from the pack. With an angelic voice and affable personality to match, the then-23-year-old singer sprouted became an R&B mainstay with her self-titled album that year.
On her first go-round, Tamia called on production juggernauts Jermaine Dupri and Tim and Bob to help carve out her first two singles “Imagination” and “So Into You,” respectively. Both records vaulted into the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, with the latter peaking at No. 30. In 2003, five years after the release of “So Into You,” Fabolous reworked the record for his Street Dreams album, and scored a top 5 hit in the process — with an assist from the original singer herself.
Twenty years since her debut, Tamia’s swagger remains magnetic. As she sings and bops to her seventh album, Passion Life Fire, at New York City’s Vinyl Crown Studios, her vibrant energy washes away the somber forecast looming over the busy streets of Manhattan.
“You can’t be a wallflower and sit back,” Tamia tells Billboard of her professional approach. “The music business is so fickle and you can’t rely on someone to tell you what’s good and what isn’t good. You have to be bold and know what you’re doing is what you’d supposed to be doing. You have to have a clear vision of what you want to do, and you need a boldness about yourself to execute it.”
Billboard spoke to Tamia about her new album Passion Like Fire, celebrating the 20th anniversary of “So Into You” and “Imagination,” what question she would ask her 23-year-old self and more. Check out the interview below.
First off, how are you feeling?
I feel super-blessed to be able to be here working on an album, prepping to promote the album with songs that I love, being excited to add material to the show. I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go, and they haven’t gone because they weren’t talented. This is just a fickle business that we’re in. I feel super-blessed. People had been with me this long and still support what I do and the new material as well.
What do you attribute your longevity to?
I think it’s so important to put out quality music. Vocally, writing-wise, production-wise, staying true to yourself but also growing a little. I don’t know what I could attribute it to. It is a fickle business and you have to roll with it. The business side of the music business is what can get tricky and throw people off… even in the way music is consumed now.
People just listen to singles, but albums are so important. They’re almost like a movie. When you hear a song, you should see something and it should take you somewhere. There are definitely songs that don’t, and you feel that and that’s a thing, too. An album should have ebbs and flows to it. Albums are so important, especially if you want to get to know the artist.
What’s the last album that gave you goosebumps?
When I listen to albums, I kind of gravitate towards things that I grew up listening too. Anita Baker, Whitney Houston’s first album, Rapture, Boyz II Men. I don’t know, I haven’t really purchased an album in a while.
If you had to give me your most personal lyric or hook off your new album Passion Like Fire, which one would it be?
The song “Deeper,” how we started the song was, “What would you say is different in the way you love now, and how you loved when you were younger?” I said, “I love deeper now.” Life just — life comes at you fast. When you have good people around you, you cherish them. You just love them so much more and deeper, for me now, because I have such an appreciation for their life as well and what they’re going through. When you’re young and you have a bad day, you think everything should revolve around you. Now that I’m older, I realize shit happens. Bad shit happens to good people sometimes, and it really puts your life in check. When I find people that I love, I just love deeper.
The lyric is: “I have loved and I have lost. Broken rivers I have crossed. I’ve made it through the rain. Like a diamond, I’ve been shaped a thousand times again.” That is absolutely true. We will forever continue to be shaped by our loves and our losses and that’s life — the beauty of life.
Another record that caught me in my feels, which was why my facial reactions were looking so crazy, was the “I Do” record. Did your wedding song play a part into how you wanted to pen this song?
I feel super fortunate, and I very rarely go to weddings and they don’t play something of mine. Not in a bragging way. I still get goosebumps and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s me!” [Laughs.] I still feel good about it. I’m just a sucker for love and that’s just such an important day. Those songs stay with you forever. I have songs that they play now, but I just really envisioned her walking down the aisle and what she would want to say. What is she feeling as she’s walking down the aisle?
Let’s go back to 1998. Take me back to the studio session of “Imagination.”
Oh my God. The studio session, that was with Jermaine Dupri, and it was probably in Atlanta. I can take you back to the video, because that was shot by Paul Hunter. I can remember I didn’t understand the concept of looking into the camera. I know now, kids are used to cameras and stuff. I was distracted and people were walking around. They literally had to put a black screen by the camera so I couldn’t see anyone because I could not focus.
Paul Hunter brought this script and all this circus stuff and fire blowers. I had this dress that was twenty feet long and it was spandex or something. It was amazing. He had such an amazing vision. He did another amazing video for me, which was “Stranger In My House.” “Imagination” was just a lot of fun. It was a great time to be alive in music and be young and creative.
How about your other baby, “So Into You?”
The studio for that was Tim and Bob, who wrote that song as well. We brought it to the studio and Quincy Jones was there. [Session musician] Greg Phillinganes was there. Quincy listened to it and said, “It sounds really good,” and told Greg to get on it. Do this, this, this, this.
Greg Phillinganes is iconic. It’s slightly intimidating to be in the booth and Quincy Jones is there. It felt special from the beginning. You could be drawn to a song but people can connect to it or not. Certainly 20 years later, I didn’t know it was going to be that. I didn’t know it was going to have that same feeling that it had then. Obviously ,Fab re-did it and that was a huge record for him as well.
Compare the feeling you get performing those records now.
It’s the same. It’s literally the same feeling. I guess because I love music as well, so it takes you back to a place but it takes me back to a place as well. You just appreciate the appreciation for a song. As a performer, I always like to perform this song like the records. As a person who loves music, when you go to a show and [they change their songs], I understand that… but I do not want to hear it like that. I want to hear it like I remember it. It’s nostalgia. It brings back the energy of the moment. It takes me back to a place.
I just went to lunch with a friend of mine and she was like, “We don’t talk about this much, but ‘So Into You,’ I could tell you where I was [when I first heard it]. I loved this boy in eighth grade and I was in my room and I just loved him. My mom could hear me singing this song.” And she just goes down this whole thing about what she was doing, and where she was when she heard the song, and she just kept singing it over and over again… Music speaks to the heart. I can go to a country and let’s say they don’t speak English, but they’re singing everything and crying. It’s just that energy in the room. Music just connects people heart to heart. I still find it amazing.
When I was six, I started singing in the church. I would start singing and people would start crying. It used to scare me, like, “What does that mean?” I didn’t quite understand. Now, I obviously understand that music just speaks to you. That right song, you are just connected to it and it’s just an amazing feeling. There’s just songs you connect to you, and you’re like, “Don’t say nothin’ during this part!” [Laughs.]
If you could have a conversation with your younger self, 20 years ago, what’s the first question you would ask?
Are you having fun? Are you taking it all in? Are you enjoying the ride? Especially in the beginning and in the ’90s, things were happening fast. You didn’t have American Idol and all these shows that are like teaching people how to be an artist, and preparing you. You had a publicist who taught you how to answer questions without sounding crazy, but you didn’t know what that was.
I was touring the world with Quincy Jones, and part of it felt like it was normal. Looking back now, I’m like, “That shit wasn’t normal. You should really be taking notes. Like ‘Dear Diary, today we are in London. Quincy and I did an interview together and he laughed at my joke.’” It’s all happening so quickly.
If you could pick one word to title this chapter of your life, what would it be and why?
I would say boldness. As you grow and grow in music, and grow in who you are as person, I think you have to develop a boldness in order to sustain in the ever-changing climate. You can’t be a wallflower and sit back. The music business is so fickle and you can’t rely on someone to tell you what’s good and what isn’t good. You have to be bold and know what you’re doing is what you’d supposed to be doing. You have to have a clear vision of what you want to do, and you need a boldness about yourself to execute it.