Former teen R&B queen Monica sounds excessively mature, if not downright snoozy, before her time in "New Life," a virtually all-ballad collection from the 31-year-old.
It's as if the very picture of ‘90s adolescence skipped directly to middle-age while we weren’t looking.
The stage is set in her seventh album with a spoken-word intro that has Monica talking on the phone with Mary J. Blige (whose part sounds to have been lifted off a voice mail). Blige urges her younger pal to embrace the gifts of the present, like her two children and new husband, and set the troubles of the past aside. Monica sounds surprisingly reticent to accept Blige’s advice, although whether this is because she’s sad and conflicted or just hadn’t had enough coffee before getting to the studio remains to be seen.
As "New Life" plays itself out over 12 tracks, it does seem designed to jump back and forth between Monica’s unhappy memories of the players who messed her up and her bliss at finding the player she’s with now -- specifically, NBA player Shannon Brown, who became her second husband in late 2010.
But both her painful past and idyllic “new life” come off equally dull in these cliché-riddled songs. In the backwards-looking stuff, Monica can’t find the sense of sheer melodrama that, say, Mary J. Blige would, and in the tunes engineered to convince us just how happy a camper she’s become, there’s no palpable sense of joy. Nor, crucially, is there anything approximating an up tempo.
Best of the lot, by virtue of its relative spunk, is “It All Belongs to Me,” a reunion with Brandy, with whom she teamed on 1998’s “The Boy Is Mine.” Unfortunately, the track is essentially a rewrite of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” updated only with Monica’s and Brandy’s contention that pretty much everything in the house is theirs, leaving very little for the kicked-out b.f. to put in a box to the left. (“That MacBook, that s--- belongs to me/So lock up your Facebook, it all belongs to me,” they sing, sounding like they think they’re throwing in very 2012 cultural references.)
“Man Who Has Everything” is as close as things come to musical adventurism, thanks to a nice reggae beat that producer Rico Love throws over a track about falling in love with a rich guy but not wanting or needing his money. It's the kind of track lots of NBA wives will be able to relate to.
But “Take a Chance” is so airy and featherweight, it makes Jordin Sparks sound like a hard-core hip-hopper. And when a hip-hop artist does suddenly appear on the track, in the token form of rapper Wale, he sounds embarrassed to be there and determined not to try too hard, although the wan rhythm doesn’t allow him too many options.
Toward the end, the album grows more explicitly old-school, as “Time to Move On” and the Salaam Remi-produced “Cry” invoke the golden age of soul balladry, without anything near the kind of hooks necessary to sell that style.
The shame of it is that, in theory, Monica is just the kind of singer to bring back that kind of class. It’s admirable that she wants to act her age and not her hip-hop shoe size, eschewing club bangers to focus on balladry that showcases her voice and befits a woman who’s enjoying settling down, which is something she seemed to have started to accomplish with 2010's "Still Standing."
But even most 31-year-old women like a bit of a beat in their lives now and again. And even as ballads go, Monica's producers and writers seem to be saving their best game for some other prematurely aged R&B princess. Everything old in “New Life” just sounds old again.