After a decade plying her craft as a songwriter for pop’s elite, the Sacramento artist emerges from the shadows with a smooth-soul repertoire and funk free-for-all. Welcome to the stage, RnB’s next big pin-up.
Anyone can be famous, but not everyone can be a star. Variations of that phrase have entered common parlance over time, but it rings especially true in an age of pretenders masquerading as artists. Victoria Monét is no pretender. The 34-year old has all the credentials: the look, the voice, the pen game, the stage presence. Over the course of her career, she’s refined and reconfigured her sound and aesthetic into something timeless. “I’ve been doing this a while but it feels like I’m finally stepping out into the light,” the singer tells me over zoom in a speaking voice so pillow soft it could thaw the hardest of hearts. “I’m feeling a little bit nervous because I’ve internally built up so much anticipation. I just want everything to go the way that I’ve been imagining it and I’ve imagined this for a long time,” she says.
Later that day Monét announces her debut album, ‘Jaguar II’. Her announcement tweet reads: “We’ve waited 3 years, don’t let It flop”. It’s an earnest plea for her fans to engage with what she calls her “labour of love”, and a critique of the metrics that determine who is a success story and who is a failure. Monét is an erudite observer of the landscape of music today; one monopolised by a warped sense of scale, schismatic online discourse, and the extractive power of labels and streaming giants. She’s fearful of the transient nature of releases and the value we ascribe to them. “If the masses don’t support it, it’s not a sustainable trend to follow,” Monét shares. “We used to be able to control the narrative; what people would see and listen to. Today, when people look at figures and they’re low, they won’t give it a chance.”
Monét’s viral moment came with ‘We Might Even Be Falling In Love’. Two variations of the track have tallied close to a hundred million streams on Spotify. I lightly admonish Monét for not extending the interlude past it’s ninety second runtime. “If I knew people loved it so much, I would have made it longer!” Monét laughs. “We can try and forecast certain things, but sometimes you’re taken by surprise.” The song’s success can in part be explained by its loungey, easy listening vibe, and a forehanded attempt to appeal to a modern listener’s waning attention span – a fact Monét is all too aware of. “It’s your job as an artist to have some awareness of the environment you’re releasing into. It’s now a trend that people listen to shorter songs. It’s not a big commitment, you know? I ask myself if it were longer, would it work the same? It can be a gift and a curse.”
As a songwriter, Victoria Monét is RnB’s secret weapon. She’s written on each of Ariana Grande’s albums, imbuing her most successful full-length, ‘Thank U Next,’ with sorority sloganeering and an acute sense of melody and musicianship. She’s written for Brandy, Chloe x Halle, BLACKPINK and Coco Jones, embellished mainstream soul with interior lines and shadings; nurtured new talent whilst finetuning her own. This transition from a secondary figure to one commanding the mainstage was chronicled on her ‘Jaguar’ project, released in 2020. During a studio session with the producer Deputy, Monét recalled hearing chords that “sounded like starlight, like a twinkle in the sky”. Enthused, she entered the booth and in cool, extemporised fashion, sang the opening lines of the title track. It’s a session she calls her “creative epiphany”.
The “Jaguar” allegory – that of a figure, hidden and inconspicuous, emerging from the shrubbery and shadows ready to stake their claim – is one the singer has memorialised across multiple projects. “In music, people knew I worked behind the scenes. When a jaguar decides they want to come out, pounce, fight or hunt, that’s when you find them. They have this amazing focus in their eyes and they’re graceful movers. I felt those similarities aligning with my songwriting career and how I was viewed versus taking the leap as a solo artist,” Monét explains, her near inaudible voice laced with a steely intensity.
In 2009, Monét moved to LA to kickstart a career in music. A meeting with Academy and Grammy Award-winning producer D’Mile – renowned for his work with Silk Sonic – proved serendipitous. Since then, their relationship has blossomed into one of the most noteworthy singer-producer pairings in music today. “Not every producer has good intentions,” Monét points out. “D’Mile made me feel safe. There was no A&R putting us together in a room, it was God’s work. He’s always invested in my own solo career,” Monét pauses… “Sometimes the talent doesn’t match the personality; the hearts aren’t the same or as big as the talent. D’Mile has both.”
Monét’s love of the retro-referential, of lush, latticed harmonies and jazzy modulations isn’t something she’s co-opted: It’s in her blood. Listen to the horn arrangements on ‘Dive’ or this year’s ‘Smoke’, with its choral chant flourishes, and you’ll hear the secular and sacred sound of her ancestors. Monét was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up on Southern gospels. She sang in the youth choir at Church, and was fed on a palette of seventies soul, Mardi Gras and Motown by her grandmother. On February 21, 2021, Monét and her partner John Gaines welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Hazel. Since becoming a mother, Monét often muses on the power of bloodline, of legacy; how every generation is propped up by the generation that came before. “I’m able to provide generationally more than what my mom could for me. It’s down to her sacrifices, my grandmother’s sacrifices,” she reflects. “My experience as an artist is influenced by the music passed down. My experience as a mother is a love letter to everyone else that is parenting. There’s something unique about parenting a girl. I’m living somewhat of an identical story, but with much more privilege because of the way I was raised.”
A video of Monét performing on stage flanked by two dancers is going viral on Twitter. Heaps of praise and adoration come through in comments noting the frenetic pace at which Monét is attacking the hyper-choreographed routine. Some compare her energy and stamina to Tina Turner; others note the sharp staccato steps are more akin to Janet at her peak. Monét is a student of performance history. She recalls watching a VHS of Sade singing to a packed-out American stadium with her midriff exposed in a white bejewelled two-piece. Monét’s own version is a muted, tonal brown. In shoots and on stage, her look often resembles a 70s siren a la Foxy Brown. “Sade’s still my favourite,” she tells me. “She’s the perfect mix of class and sensuality.” Monét admires how Sade’s performance persona was untethered from her real-life identity. “She’s been so clear what her priorities are. She just wants to do music; that’s the root of it. The focus shouldn’t be her personal life or her family life, it should be the art she gives to the world on her own terms,” Monét says.
That duality you can attribute to Monét. She likens it to a form of method acting; a mode that protects and insulates her when she embodies a character on stage. “You have to trick yourself,” Monet explains. “People aren’t really judging me or looking at me, they’re looking at my character. If they say anything negative, it’s not technically about me – it’s about this suit of armour I was putting on.” When Monét performed ‘Moment’ on Jimmy Kimmel Live! back in 2020, she married homage with clean contemporary lines. It felt like, for lack of a better word, a moment. Backstage her anxiety almost unmoored her: “I was like Hannah Montana; the shy and nervous side, and the other side that’s a performance beast.” The performance should have heralded Victoria Monét’s re-introduction, but the pandemic had other ideas. “I thought so many things were going to happen right after that. It was hard, but it put things in perspective because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I also feel time gave me the ability to grow into my artistry more,” she affirms.
‘Jaguar II’ is the “older sister” to ‘Jaguar’. The two projects are companion pieces, documenting the non-linear stages of Monét’s life in her thirties. Some of the narrative threads are plucked from the ‘Jaguar’ era, others were written when Monét was pregnant, and what became of her life thereafter. Don’t expect an album mired by schmaltzy sentimental notes on motherhood. Much of the album is light, feel-good and aspirational, though at times Monét extracts and explores moments tinged with heartbreak and melancholy. “I touch on my experience with postpartum; looking at my baby, feeling elation but also feeling worry and sadness,” Monét trails off deep in thought. “I think this album is a death to the old version of myself. A lot of ‘Jaguar II’ is about the dualities of existence; being human, feeling everything and embracing the unknown. It’s me saying women are not one dimensional.”
‘Jaguar II’ is a fluid excursion through the contours of Southern soul, deconstructed funk, traditional RnB, and a hybrid take on house. The latter is the track ‘Alright’, a long overdue collaboration between the singer and Kaytranada. The album’s rare up-tempo moment is Monét experiencing “life under the moon, in a club with my friends; sweaty, free and without fear”. ‘Jaguar II’ is a work of artful synthesis between the familiar rubric of riffs and horns with more experimental detours, atomic solos, string sections and ornate vocal arrangements. ‘Smoke Reprise’ – another interlude, another highlight – is steamy psychedelic soul where Monét manufactures cloud nine rapture.
Monét role plays and subverts gender stereotypes. On ‘Party Girls’, a dancehall anthem featuring a rare Buju Banton assist, she’s the bandleader rousing her worldwide posse into an assembly line through a carnival; on ‘Cadillac’ she inhabits rap’s swaggering pimp – a heady highlight with Monét at her shapeshifting, sinuous best. “I like taking gender norms and flipping them on their head because the stereotypes we hear are often incorrect. Women have the same conversations guys have, so I wanted to put that in song form,” she explains. This isn’t the first time Monét has explored perspectives and power dynamics in her work; her desire to record the molasses-smooth ‘F.U.C.K’ came from wanting a feminine outlook on hookup culture. “I wanted to get a female viewpoint on casual sex because I don’t hear it often. Rappers will say: let’s get together, just don’t tell my girl. What happens if casual sex is explored with rawness but also sensitivity,” Monét explains.
The album closes with two probing and personal songs, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Goodbye’. On the former – which features “the world’s greatest band”, Earth, Wind & Fire – Monét’s inner voice reels off a series of questions. One voice taps into insecurity, the other speaks of destiny and preordained moments, of survival and hard-won triumph: “It’s me asking: What is my purpose? Am I worthy? But without being preachy. It makes you think a little, makes you reckon with a few things.” ‘Jaguar II’ is Monét’s aide memoire. It’s an ode to an era and era-defining archetypes. It’s a song suite that invites multiplicity; it’s what Monét hopes will be a portal for listeners to pass through and access something akin to sonic freedom. “I want this music to help you acknowledge and affirm whatever you’re feeling. These are pages from my diary, and I’m inviting you in. We have similarities, we have differences, lets honour both. We’re often told to pick a character and stick to it: ‘Jaguar II’ is a representation of being free and living in your truth.”
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Jamie Bruce
Styling: Timothy Luke Garcia
Hair: Davontae Washington
Make-up: Alexander Echeverri