Former teen star Monica has returned with a hit album, "Still Standing".

Hard to believe it’s been a decade and a half since Monica Arnold stepped onto the music scene. Her first hit single, “Don’t Take it Personal (Just One of Dem Days)”, topped charts when she was all of 14 years old-a pretty amazing feat. Over the years since, she’s recorded albums of varying quality while maintaining a presence on the charts. She’s also undergone quite a bit of personal drama, mostly on the boyfriend side (one committed suicide in her presence, another went to jail for murder). Despite those personal setbacks, she’s been one of the few former child stars who seems to have turned out to be a pretty well-adjusted, sane and intelligent adult.

Monica’s last album, 2006’s “The Makings of Me” was, for lack of a better term, a disaster. Her voice has always belied her age. Unlike contemporaries Brandy and Aaliyah, who sang with a wispy kind of youthfulness, Monica sounded like a full-grown adult even back when she was barely a teenager. Her honeyed croon was reminiscent of artists like Gladys Knight, and “Makings” seemed like a regression of sorts. Monica may have only been in her mid-twenties when that album was released, but it seemed that she was way beyond drivel like “Everytime tha Beat Drop” and “Sideline Ho”, both in terms of vocal dexterity and lyrical maturity.

With all that in mind, “Still Standing” is like a breath of fresh air. Monica and her team of producers wisely stayed away from anything ridiculously trendy on this album-there is NO auto-tune, there’s only ONE guest rapper cameo, and the songwriting isn’t preschool level, a la The Black Eyed Peas. While I don’t think “Still Standing” totally succeeds when it comes to matching Monica’s classic voice with a contemporary musical framework, there’s nothing on it as embarrassingly bad as on her last album.

The album gets off to a blazing start with the title track, an autobiographical statement of purpose for Monica. It’s triumphant and powerful from a vocal and a lyrical standpoint. Ludacris pops in for the album’s only guest appearance and delivers one of his most fiery rhymes ever. Tellingly, it’s one of only two songs that Monica gets co-writing credit for (the other track being the pretty but lyrically slight “Here I Am”). “Mirror” also has a theme of confidence and empowerment, and Monica knocks it out of the park with her vocals. I don’t know that I ever realized what a great singer she is until this album. While she’s not a vocal showoff like a Beyonce, she has it all over Mrs. Knowles-Carter when it comes to emotional resonance.

In my review for “The Makings of Me”, I mentioned that Monica should never again work with Missy Elliott. After listening to the two tracks that Missy co-produced on “Still Standing”, I might be willing to give her a reprieve. Granted, there wasn’t a whole lot of actual “production” involved in “Everything to Me” and “If You Were My Man”-they’re both based almost entirely around samples-but the songs are solid anyway. The former track, currently the #1 R&B song in the country, is an elegant ballad based on Deniece Williams’ “Silly”, while the latter track is the closest thing on “Still Standing” to a “club banger”. Monica rides smoothly over the electro-funk sample of Evelyn King’s “Betcha She Don’t Love You”. However, the song is almost ruined by Missy’s Fatman Scoop-like shouts over the song. Someone should have stuck a sandwich in her mouth or something. The habit of hip-hop & R&B producers screaming stuff over the records they supervise needs to stop. Would “Thriller” have been any better if Quincy Jones kept screaming “Quincy Jones! New sh*t!!” at the beginning of every song?

My only real gripe with “Still Standing” is that some of the songs just fade into the background. The writing and production could still be a little stronger. A couple more songs like the beautiful, semi-acoustic closing ballad “Believing in Me” would have made for a better album. Not to say there’s a lot of filler, but a 10-song album (that took 3 1/2 years to produce) should probably have more memorable material on it.

Overall, though, it looks like Monica’s made great strides towards a comeback, both on a qualitative level and a commercial level. “Still Standing” is, for the most part, a solid album with mature content that doesn’t desperately chase after the youth market (Usher, are you listening?). After taking a bit of a stumble, it looks like Monica has corrected herself.

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