We at MiddleChild Promotions consider ourselves to be truly devoted R&B lovers, which means there are countless artists that have left a permanent mark on our hearts even if the mark they made in the mainstream faded long ago. And it’s because of our love and passion for the genre that we decided to dedicate our Fridays – a.k.a. #FlashbackFridays – to shine our humble spotlight on select artists and their respective albums that we basically feel deserved to be great! For some, it may be an education; for others, it may just be a pleasant reminder; for us, it’s another reason to rant about how dope R&B music is! First up…
Receipts: Mona Lisa’s debut album, 11-20-79, was released on 6-11-96 via Island Records. It dropped six months after its lead single, “Can’t Be Wasting My Time” (fun fact: Johntá Austin’s first professional songwriting credit) featuring the Lost Boyz, which peaked at #20 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart thanks to its inclusion on the Gold-certified Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood soundtrack. However, the album failed to chart on Top 200 Albums, peaking at #38 on R&B Albums, and produced only one additional top-40 R&B single with “You Said” (#38); the third and final single, “Just Wanna Please U”, stalled at #65. Less than two years later, Mona was moved to the newly established Def Soul Records but released just one promo single, “Peach”, before her second album Get’n It On was shelved and her music career essentially faded to black.
The Greatness: Emerging in the midst of the hip-hop/soul renaissance that artists like Mary J. Blige were pioneering at the time, Mona’s album hit that sweet spot right in between the juncture of those two genres. While many of her peers were dabbling in those sounds but also incorporating more adult contemporary or pop-minded elements in hopes of crossing over, Mona stayed firmly in her lane. She wasn’t a studio puppet just singing to tracks either; she had a strong set of pipes capable of delivering the right amount of power or finesse required. Her team of producers locked down the “street but sweet” sound perfectly. She rode the hip-hop flavored tracks (“Time”; “Please U”; “Love U Enough”; “I’m Not Your Girl”) with a cool, relaxed swagger while simultaneously belting out the love songs and kiss-offs (“Keep Fallin'”; “You Said”; “You Gave Me Love”; “Crazy”) with conviction. Overall, it was a entertaining debut album and a great introduction to Mona Lisa’s potential.
The Odds Against It: 1996 was a tough year for launching a new R&B artist aside from the volume of established artists dominating the charts. The new(er) artists making the most noise were either at the tail end of promoting successful debut albums (Monica and Miss Thang); debuting with the newest trend that soon became “neo-soul” (Maxwell; D’Angelo); had high-profile co-signs preceding their introductions (Bad Boy with 112; Heavy D with Monifah; Timbaland with Ginuwine); or had all eyes on their highly anticipated follow-up projects (11-20-79 was released exactly one week before Toni Braxton’s Secrets and two months before Aaliyah’s One in a Million). That left Mona, her one top-20 hit and her debut album produced by mostly unknowns struggling to get attention and ultimately stranded.
Regardless: Charts and sales have never been a dictator of quality and a diamond in the rough, no matter how small, is a diamond nonetheless. It is unfortunate that 11-20-79‘s lack of success led to the premature demise of Mona Lisa’s recording career but for any fan of hip-hop/soul, her one contribution to the movement is still worthy of being cherished.
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