[1 December 2010]
Monica Arnold, as a vocalist, is the contemporary embodiment of less is more—embodying the emotive singing that characterized so much of black singing pre-1980 or so. She’s blessed with perhaps the best alto of her generation and, despite a little too much vibrato at times, she’s always been able to elevate even the most generic material (the insipid Diane Warren ballad “For You I Will” comes to mind) with conviction and the sheer beauty of her voice.
But that’s the thing with Monica – she’s just never really had the right material to really showcase her ability as a vocalist, not consistently anyway. And because subtlety has become something that the record-buying public has increasingly not valued much, she has been at an unfair disadvantage that has forced her to spend much of her career trying on a bunch of different sounds designed to make her as popular as her contemporaries, Brandy and Aaliyah (who have both had a greater sense of ‘self’ much earlier in their careers), greatness be damned. And the result of all of this is that, aside from her collaborations with the brilliant Dallas Austin (most notably, on “Street Symphony,” her single greatest work to date), Monica the artist has been something of a cipher.
With Still Standing, all of that is over.
This mature, thoughtful and honest album finds Monica coming into her own. Here, she gives the public an album that provides a true snapshot of who she is at this moment in her life, without a lot of pretense and posturing. Too often in the past, the Monica you read about in the papers or saw in interviews didn’t show up on the albums. And when it did – on the hoodrat-themed mess of her last two albums and singles like “Sideline Ho” and “So Gone” – it felt exploitative and indulgent. And the public rightly rejected all of that.
But here Monica mixes personal testimony with love songs that paint a full picture of a young woman who has been through the storm and emerged whole with a clearer sense of what she wants. The title track sets the tone as Monica, singing over a slightly anthemic track by Bryan-Michael Cox, says unequivocally that she ain’t goin’ nowhere. Or take “Mirror.” With its somewhat cheesy lyrics about seeing the real self in the mirror, the song could have been a big ole mess. But it helps that the song is beautifully arranged and that Jim Jonsin dials back the production enough to let Monica’s voice take center stage. There are a few other songs that could have just been maudlin odes to self-love and redemption – and in lesser hands, they very well could have been – but Monica makes them work because we can feel how important music is to her and how much she believes in what she’s singing.
There is still plenty of ATL swag and attitude, but it is rooted in strong songwriting and real emotion. On “If You Were My Man” – which is built around Evelyn Champagne King’s “Betcha She Don’t Love You” – she makes you believe that this man’s girlfriend really isn’t as dope as Monica is. Just peep how she sings “I’ll treat you better than she ever can.” It’s the closest thing to an uptempo on the album, but it’s also damn fine piece of songwriting that lets Monica loosen up and have some fun.
But, of course, the best songs are about good ole fashioned love. Ne-Yo and the great Bei Maejor give Monica the best ballad she’s recorded in ages with “Stay or Go,” a song that is basically an ultimatum. But when Monica sings those words – “stay or go” – you hear fed up, sure, but you also hear a palpable amount of sadness and regret. And so the song has a melancholy tone that gives it weight it wouldn’t otherwise have. Even her vocalizing at the end is tinged with sadness. It’s a beautiful performance of perhaps the best song on the album. And “One in a Lifetime,” “Love All Over Me”, and first single “Everything to Me,” built around Deniece Williams’ “Silly,” with that fantastic opening – “Boy if you ever left my, my side” – are all just as great.
Still Standing is an accomplished piece of work that is easily the best album Monica has yet released and should be heralded as a great R&B record. However since the record-buying public seems uninterested in R&B and the industry has followed suit by reviewing and commenting on R&B with the same level of disinterest (often dishonestly), anyone who may be looking for something a little different with a bit more heft will have to seek it out on their own.