Next From the Diva Machine

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Given the prominent role that Arista Records President Clive Davis has played in the careers of so many top pop stars, it's easy to imagine industry insiders sending him congratulatory notes over what seems at first blush to be his latest master stroke with Monica.

How better for the man who helped guide the development of such pop-soul divas as Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton to launch the new album by the 17-year-old singer than by teaming her with established teen star Brandy on "The Boy Is Mine," the record that has been the nation's No. 1 single for six weeks?

The single, understandably, is the title track of Monica's album, which is due in stores next Tuesday.

But the record, a key element in what is certain to be one of the most talked-about album launches of the season, was in some ways accidental.

Rather than something the label masterminded, it resulted from a phone call between the two young singers. It's a case history that shows how even the most carefully executed game plans often benefit from a little old-fashioned good fortune.

"People had the idea that Brandy and I were rivals, which was just false," explains Monica, settling back on a couch in her midtown Manhattan hotel room.

"We had only really seen each other in passing at awards shows and things, but I had always commended her for her accomplishments. . . . Then [Brandy's label] Atlantic Records called and told me that she wanted to do this song with me."

In a separate interview, Brandy, who co-wrote the song with 20-year-old R&B; prodigy Rodney Jerkins and three other collaborators, said she originally recorded the song alone. After listening to the result, however, she and Jerkins thought it would work better as a duet.

Brandy said one reason she thought of Monica was that the teaming would help combat the rumors that the teen singers didn't get along.

But she was also enticed, no doubt, by the selling power that Monica had already shown on her own, both with her double-platinum debut album, 1996's "Miss Thang," and with the Top 10 single "For You I Will," which was on last year's "Space Jam" soundtrack.

If "The Boy Is Mine," which was recorded in Los Angeles for Brandy's new album, fell into Arista's lap, Davis was quick to recognize the song's potential--which means those congratulatory notes may still be in order.

According to Dallas Austin, who co-produced the recording with Jerkins and Brandy, the decision to make "The Boy Is Mine" the title cut of Monica's album came fairly late in the game--right after the single was released by Atlantic.

"It was Clive's idea," says Austin, the album's co-executive producer with Davis. "We wanted to reflect that it was a duet, not just a song on Brandy's album featuring Monica. We wanted it to be as big as [the 1983 Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney duet] 'The Girl Is Mine.' "

Davis and Austin ended up bringing Jerkins in to join a list of high-profile writers and producers recruited for Monica's album. Others include noted pop-ballad tunesmith David Foster and frequent Mariah Carey collaborator Jermaine Dupri, who contributed the pulsating second single, "The First Night."

"We were very excited about the project," says Davis. "It seemed like a win-win situation, and that's what happened. We hope this will confirm the fact that Monica is a major, major new star."

Says Vibe magazine editor in chief Danyel Smith, a more objective observer, "There's no doubt in my mind that Monica has the voice to take her to the highest levels of pop superstardom. The only question now is whether she has that charisma that people like Houston and Janet Jackson have--that special, mysterious quality that makes a soul-diva genius."

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In conversation, Monica seldom comes across as a diva of any sort. A lanky, soft-spoken young woman with a disarmingly earnest smile, she exudes the buoyant, sometimes awkward energy of youth, whether leaning forward to giggle at a TV sitcom she's watching intermittently or receiving compliments on her singing with a polite, slightly embarrassed "thank you."

Certainly, it would be tempting to cast this budding star as a naive muse for the multi-platinum instincts of Davis or the Svengali-like ambitions of Austin, the Atlanta-based R&B; savant who discovered her more than five years ago and still writes and produces most of her material.

But Monica insists that in working on the new album, her creative relationship with Austin was very much a collaborative one, in which he used her ideas to fashion "lyrics that fit the tracks he was working on"--typically sultry, groove-driven numbers that emphasize her husky, dramatic alto, which invites comparisons to Braxton.

The songs cast her in such roles as a rueful lover who pines for her old beau on the lithe, lusty "Take Him Back" and as a siren who artfully seduces a new guy on the slamming hip-hop confection "Cross Da Room."

But Austin, who also helped launch the career of TLC and has worked with such superstars as Madonna and Michael Jackson, confirms that Monica's songs are built on aspects of the singer's own story.

"What people love about Monica is that she sings about stuff that real teenagers today go through--maybe stuff their parents don't even know about," he says. "That's what makes her special--she's very realistic."

On the same topic, Monica adds, "People may wonder how I know about relationships, but I think the fact is that society is producing more adult teenagers. I would definitely say that a lot of my friends grew up faster. I mean, you're just a product of your environment."

The most important relationship in Monica's life has been with her mother, a consumer affairs official for Delta Airlines who supported and raised the singer and her three younger brothers largely on her own after splitting up with their father when Monica Arnold (her full name) was still a young child. "My mother has always maintained her own job and her own life," Monica says proudly.

Monica's mom inspired her daughter's musical ambition, as well, enrolling the girl in their Methodist church choir in College Park, a suburb of Atlanta, when she was only 2. As she grew older, Monica was also influenced by the more secular music of other gospel-bred artists such as Aretha Franklin and Houston.

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At 12, Monica was spotted in a local talent show by Kevin Wales, a colleague of Austin. She met with Austin, by then a leading figure on Atlanta's thriving R&B; scene, two weeks later, and in 1993 was signed to his Rowdy Records, a now-defunct label then distributed by Arista. Her 1995 debut single, "Don't Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)," was an instant R&B; hit, and in 1996 "Miss Thang" seemed to secure her stature as a name to watch. But because of her extreme youth, Monica says, her relatively quick rise was less than smooth.

"I think, at first, my music was considered gimmicky," she says. "I was more mature than some people expected me to be. . . . But a lot of the songs that people assumed were about [romantic] relationships were actually about more family-oriented things, things that pertained to my growing up--like my father leaving."

While Monica has plainly moved beyond such adolescent issues with her new songs, she is still young enough to evolve and grow considerably even within the next year or so. Vibe's Smith figures that "The Boy Is Mine" may have enough breadth and longevity to accommodate that process.

"I think the album is at least six singles deep," Smith says. "With the way pop albums stay on the charts for 18 months or two years now, I feel like we could watch Monica grow up with this album. We could see her going from being Miss Teen Dream, like she is on that duet with Brandy, to doing a much deeper, more romantic song, from the same album."

Jay Krugman, senior vice president of marketing at Arista, agrees that the album "is poised to come out extremely strong. Monica is young, but she already has a tremendous platform as an artist with multiple hit singles, and the marketing plan [for the album] will reflect that.

"We'll utilize all available avenues to create awareness, from radio and video play and advertising to . . . TV appearances and magazine covers. We're just finalizing a deal with a major beverage company. This is a great album that will be very well-received, and Monica will grow from that."

Monica herself is cautiously optimistic about how far she'll go but hopes that fans and industry watchers will also recognize how far she has come.

"I want people to respect me and to accept this album as coming from a young woman, not a child," she says. "I'm ecstatic about having accomplished all these goals when I'm so young. Maybe that means I'll have an early retirement, or maybe it means my career will be an extremely long one. . . . I just try to stay focused on self-maintenance.

"So many of us, especially women, don't know ourselves; we let other people tell us what we need and want. So I'm trying to get to know myself, and to give myself a chance. That's all I can do, you know?"

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