NEW YORK -- Delays and false starts surrounding the release of Monica's third album, "After the Storm," are just a minor bump in the road compared with the personal upheaval she's gone through.
During the four years since the release of her two-million-plus selling album "The Boy Is Mine," Monica witnessed her first love commit suicide, then saw an ex-boyfriend incarcerated on a murder charge. In addition, she's become a parental figure in the upbringing of her deceased boyfriend's child.
Quite a load for a former teen R&B queen barely into adulthood. Yet far from wallowing in grief, the 22-year-old has emerged from personal tragedies with her serene demeanor, positive vibe and trademark sassy attitude intact. She's also got a No. 1 album: "After the Storm" debuted at the top of the charts, selling about 186,000 copies, according to industry figures released Wednesday.
The first hit off her new disc, "So Gone," shows a sexier side of the singer, even including a feisty rap. And there are no mournful songs on her disc - even the tune she penned about her ex-lover's suicide is an up-tempo groove that is not only a tribute to him, but also an affirmation of her own life.
"The positive side is that experience in those things, and making it through, makes me feel encouraged about continuing on," a relaxed Monica says from the offices of her label, J Records. "There's never been a time where I've said, 'I just can't make it."'
That seems to be Monica Arnold's overall motto in life. The singer was just 12 years old when she was discovered by fellow Atlanta resident (and big-time record producer) Dallas Austin. A year later, she had her first smash hit: "Don't Take it Personal (Just One of Dem Days)," a groove brimming with attitude that belied her young age.
"She was very mature, and even though she didn't have a record out, she already acted like a true diva," joked producer Carsten "Soulshock" Schack, who along with partner Kenneth Karlin, produced some of her earliest hits as well as three tracks on her new album.
The hits continued for Monica over the years, from her Grammy-winning duet with fellow one-named teen singer Brandy, "The Boy Is Mine," to "The First Night." By the time she was 18, she was already an established R&B princess with millions of album sales to her credit.
Yet despite Monica's glamorous world, the self-described homebody never went Hollywood. Keeping her connection to the streets is how she became close to Jarvis Weems, who had at one point been involved in the drug trade. While some may have been surprised by the union, Monica says of her dating choices: "They wouldn't if they knew me. I'm not one of those spoon-fed artists who grew up getting everything she wanted."
The pair dated off and on for a couple of years, and were together at the time of his death; in fact, Monica was next to Weems when he took out a gun and shot himself to death. Weems was distraught over the death of his brother; he was sitting in a car near the cemetery, where Weems had just visited his brother's grave.
The devastated singer spent the first few months after his death in denial and depression, later lessened by spiritual guidance from her mother and stepfather, a minister. Still, Monica doubts that she'll ever recover.
"Afterward, I felt, 'What else could I have done?' You replay that situation over and over and you switch it around: 'Maybe if I had said this, or if I would have done that,"' she says. "It's just something that it's never possible for me to go back and change."
Monica endured another crisis with an ex-boyfriend when Corey Miller - better known as rapper C-Murder, the brother of Master P - was charged with murder in the slaying of a teenager. Although Miller is in jail with no bail awaiting trial, the pair remain close: "I just feel more sad for him that he's not allowed his freedom until he's proven innocent."
Given all the drama that she had experienced, Monica wanted her upcoming album to reflect the serious tone her life had taken.
"I just wanted to give the people back something that had personal passion, instead of just, 'Oh, let's dance to this record,"' she said.
Yet the first single released from the project was "All Eyez on Me" - a fluffy dance track that borrowed its beat from Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." It went nowhere on the charts. A follow-up song, "Too Hood," also got a lukewarm response. The album's tentative release was pushed back several times.
Monica believes that her fans rejected "All Eyez on Me" because they were used to hearing songs from her with more substance.
"I don't think people wanted to hear a big fun record from me, after knowing all the things that I had personally experienced," she said.
In addition, it was heavily bootlegged in Japan, according to J Records. That prompted Monica to go back into the studio and retool the album, with help from Missy Elliott, who is the album's executive producer.
"She grew majorly," says producer Jermaine Dupri, who also contributed tracks to the album. "Missy's got her rapping; she's just a much more confident artist."
One tune from the old project that remains on the new disc is "I Wrote This Song," which speaks of her relationship with Weems, his lifestyle, and his passing.
The lyrics include the lines: "Now he says he wants out of here, But he's in too deep, And the only way that he will go is killing him or leaving me, So this is where I'm at and it hurts so bad, That I had to choose if I wanna live, or die with you."
Schack remembers playing Monica the first version of the tune.
"It could have been a song about someone leaving a relationship, but Monica right away was like, 'I know where you're going,"' he recalls. "She started rewriting the lyrics. When she had to record the song, it was a very emotional experience for her."
Schack says the most amazing thing about Monica is that she's managed to stay positive despite her struggles.
"Obviously, she's a very, very strong woman now. And I think that she's looking at life like she's going through these journeys, and she's trying to learn from it," he says.
"Sometimes, the smallest things happen to an artist, and everything just crashes," he adds. "She's found a way to deal with it."
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