It’s not that often R&B artists get another chance to win over their fans after a studio album failed to meet their expectations.
Monica and her J Records comeback album, Still Standing, proved to be an exception in 2010.
Four years prior, the vocalist’s career seemed to be at a crossroads. She released The Makings of Me, the successor to her first number-one album After the Storm.
The 2006 LP, particularly the snapping lead single “Everytime tha Beat Drop” featuring Dem Franchize Boyz, didn’t necessarily reflect the musical progression that Monica had hoped to be known for as a then-ten year veteran. She even cited the trend-chasing record as a “poor presentation of the album.”
Failing to yield a major hit single as successful as “So Gone” with The Makings of Me, Monica spent the next few years trying to find her place in a crowded genre of fresh voices (Keyshia Cole, Jazmine Sullivan) and established R&B titans (Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige), who were all experiencing career high points. Her return to sheer greatness didn’t come without an uphill fight and a few novel moments.
For a start, Monica had to learn the hard way that longevity doesn’t necessarily mean that an artist is always a priority for the label. A new artist can come along, dazzle tastemakers with a breakthrough hit and album, and cause a seasoned artist’s tireless contributions to the music industry to seem minuscule to those in charge.
In the midst of Monica’s Makings of Me era, her label was seemingly putting all their bets on other acts. Fresh off the release of her first live album, Alicia Keys was prepping for As I Am: her next award-sweeping album.
Fantasia, a label newbie, was growing into her own with her self-titled sophomore album, topping the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart with the single “When I See You.” Also, on the heels of his award-winning role in Ray, Jamie Foxx was turning heads in Hollywood, as he heavily promoted his Unpredictable album.
This interesting perception of being overlooked may have led to many of the casualties Monica experienced as it pertained to the underperforming album sales of The Makings of Me.
Monica eagerly returned to the studio with Bryan Michael-Cox, Jermaine Dupri and Missy Elliott, to work on her next album after issuing four singles between 2006 and 2007. Embracing the promotional hiccups of her fifth effort, Monica realized that her fans deserved music that felt true to her past glories instead of sacrificing her artistry for a microwave hit.
The biggest issue for Monica during The Makings of Me album cycle was not being able to select a fitting lead single. She strongly felt that the survival track “Still Standing” featuring Ludacris would make a strong era-launching single. However, J. Records thought otherwise and pointed her back to the drawing board.
Rather than fight with the label about the strength of the track, she and her team came up with a possible solution for her follow-up that involved a growing obsession: reality television.
At that time in television history, many of the music-driven reality shows (American Idol, Making the Band) were mostly in the business of catapulting artists to superstardom. Very few were invested in the career revival of artists who were eyeing for a proper homecoming.
Although Monica couldn’t afford to chance creative exploration on Still Standing, she did see room to find out how tapping into the reality television market could give her career a reboot.
In August 2008, the Grammy winner partnered with Atlanta’s PeachTree TV to debut The Single: Monica. The one-hour special chronicled the singer’s in-studio sessions with Bryan Michael-Cox and J Records executives to come up with her next major hit (“Still Standing”) for her upcoming album, then-titled Lessons Learned.
A year later, Monica reissued the special as a ten-part documentary for BET and called it Monica: Still Standing. This show coincided with the resurgence of her music career as she worked with various hit-makers to position herself to take over the charts again.
The series also took a deep dive at the closed-door conversations that many artists, particularly R&B acts, have with their labels as they gear up for a new album, including ongoing debates on the first single.
Given the smooth running of her BET series, Monica putting out the iron-solid Deniece Williams sampled hit “Everything to Me” could not be better timed. Drawing inspiration from the big ballads heydays, Monica upped the ante vocally and showed off her refined range in an elegant way that made for a compelling performance. She drove this indisputable point home with each and every live performance, especially her late-night stop on The George Lopez Show.
Though its nostalgic-natured radiance made it a bona fide hit for the traditional R&B radio circuit, the Missy Elliott and Lamb-produced composition proved a hit on urban radio. This fine single marched its way to the pole position on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, marking Monica’s biggest hit there since 2003’s “So Gone.”
Later that year, Monica duplicated a similar chart-topping triumph on the Adult R&B Songs chart with the heartfelt tune “Love All Over Me.” The competition between the first and second single lies in the songwriting. For the latter sappy ballad, it involves Mo’s frequent contributors Bryan Michael-Cox and Jermaine Dupri.
It also includes Crystal Johnson (a.k.a. Crystal Nicole), a then-emerging songsmith who united her writing gifts to Monica’s voice for the first time. Its sheathed concept that expresses the indelible longing that one can feel for a life partner makes for a respectively stronger record than its lead.
Do artists and labels sometimes drop the ball with singles? Yes, it’s inevitable that things always go according to plan with album rollouts. Monica’s in-need banger “Here I Am” suffered the unfortunate fate of ball dropping when it was issued as the third single in fall 2010.
But the Ester Dean-helmed track had several complications that dated back to 2009, including its premature confirmation as a dual single with a scrapped song (“Nothing Like Me”). It was also announced as the second single but was quickly replaced by “Love All Over Me” after overwhelming fan responses.
It’s a shame that “Here I Am” wasn’t given the red carpet treatment of its predecessors. This record could have carried Monica into the new year as she started work on her follow-up. But its proper chance to become her third respective hit was foiled by the unnecessary decision to force a remix with her Trey Songz. This track still deserves justice.
Inevitably, Still Standing picked up a Best R&B Album nomination at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2011. Interestingly, this remarkably solid album is noted as the first and only full-length album by Monica to be recognized by the Recording Academy.
She also earned her first-ever solo nod for “Everything to Me.” Now, while she didn’t win either award, her first pair of nominations in 12 years showed clear signs that the committee was at least impressed with her triumphant return.
What’s not often mentioned and shouldn’t be taken for granted in Monica’s comeback story is how Keyshia Cole’s rising familiarity reintroduced her voice to the R&B audience.
By 2009, the Oakland native already had a string of number-one hits and three platinum-selling albums under her belt. Cole seemed like the perfect secret weapon that Monica needed to get back on the radar.
Landing a feature on Cole’s A Different Me album on a reworked version of the Just Like You bonus track “Trust” put Monica back in duet territory. Unlike her previous duet (“The Boy is Mine”) with fellow R&B diva Brandy, where the two competing vocally over a man, Monica and Cole went for a reassurance approach and poised it as a timeless vocal performance.
The two R&B stars were tapped to perform the duet at the 2009 BET Awards. It is no coincidence that Cole was on the performance lineup since she had seemingly become a talent-favorite for the annual ceremony, with a main-stage presence at the three previous awards shows (2006, 2007 and 2008).
In a case of stealing the thunder, Monica treated her first-ever BET Awards performance as an opportunity to set up her return and show everyone that she hadn’t lost her ability to command the room with her passionate vocals. And it worked, too.
Looking back at this album ten years later, the title says it all. Monica was Still Standing after a 15-year career of highs and lows. Her adult wisdom to return to the reminiscent sounds of her early days made for an excellent album that distinguishes itself from her previous works.
Was Still Standing an entirely flawless album?
It had a few weak points like the dated “If You Were My Man,” but, overall Monica crafted a fine collection of age-appropriate uptempo and downtempo R&B tunes. Reflecting mostly on love, she masterfully fused songs about perseverance and self-importance on standouts like “Mirror” and “Believing in Me.”
If R&B enthusiasts and career-long fans had set high expectations for Monica’s Still Standing, she certainly exceeded them. In retrospect, this gold-selling outing can now be referred back to as the turning point that helped breathe ‘new life’ into Monica’s once-big music career.
Revisit Still Standing below.