Now, on with the column.
In the fall of 1997, Americans were so shocked and saddened over the death of Princess Diana that we bought 11 million copies of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997,” sending that song to #1 for an insane 14 weeks. Immediately after that, the British and American singles charts, once so intertwined with one another, went through a great uncoupling. It would be nearly a decade before another British artist reached #1 in the US.
For a few years around the turn of the millennium, British groups scored #1 hits in the UK by recording goofy-ass covers of past American chart-toppers — Blazin’ Squad doing “Tha Crossroads,” Blue doing “Too Close.” But that tendency cut the other way, too. In 1999, the young R&B titan Monica landed her third #1 hit in nine months by covering a song that had been a UK hit two years earlier. But Monica’s version of “Angel Of Mine” wasn’t especially goofy. If anything, it might’ve been a little better if it were a little goofier.
“Angel Of Mine” was earmarked for Monica before it became a UK hit. The song came from two American songwriters, Rhett Lawrence and Travon Potts. Lawrence was the longtime studio musician who’d co-produced “Vision Of Love,” Mariah Carey’s debut single and first #1 hit. Potts had a background in gospel, and he worked as a programmer in Lawrence’s studio. Lawrence gave Potts the room that he needed to work on his own music, and Potts came up with the rhythmic bed for “Angel Of Mine.” He and Lawrence finished the song up together.
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Lawrence says, “The song is partially about my wife and partially about our little Pomeranian dog, who is the sweetest thing you can imagine. He was at the studio, and I sat him down in a chair and looked at him every once in a while. I tried to write it from the perspective of total innocence.” I like the idea of writing a love song to a dog and talking about the dog as an angel. That’s some real sappy dog-person shit, and I respect it.
The “Angel Of Mine” origin story tracks. “Angel Of Mine” is a love song, but it’s not especially concerned with the physical or even necessarily the romantic. Instead, the narrator spends the whole song talking to someone, telling him that he’s come into her life like a divine presence: “When I first saw you, I already knew/ There was something inside of you/ Something I thought that I would never find/ Angel of mine.” When Monica took “Angel Of Mine” to #1 in the US, it followed R. Kelly and Céline Dion’s “I’m Your Angel” as the second love song about angels to top the Hot 100 in a couple of months. America was just really into angels around that time. I don’t know what that was about.
When Rhett Lawrence and Travon Potts finished writing “Angel Of Mine,” they sent the song to Clive Davis. Davis loved the song, and he wanted it for Monica, so he put a hold on it. The two songwriters waited for months for anything to happen with the song, and then they got another offer. Eternal, an R&B trio from London, had been around since the early ’90s. Their 1993 debut single “Stay,” a cover of a song that the American singer Glenn Jones had recorded a few years earlier, had been a #4 hit in the UK and a #19 hit in the US.
In the US, Eternal were one-hit wonders. After “Stay,” they never charted again. In the UK, though, Eternal racked up hits for the rest of the ’90s. In about four years, Eternal landed 12 singles in the UK top 10. In 1997, Rhett Lawrence and gospel great BeBe Winans co-wrote Eternal’s single “I Wanna Be The Only One.” Winans guested on the track, and it became Eternal’s only UK chart-topper.
After “I Wanna Be The Only One” hit, Eternal’s label wanted to rush-release a greatest-hits album that would be ready in time for Christmas 1997. They needed two new songs to include, and they had to have those songs done in a week or two. Eternal heard “Angel Of Mine” on a track of Rhett Lawrence’s songs, and they wanted to record it. So Lawrence and Clive Davis worked out a deal. Eternal could release the song overseas, but it couldn’t come out in the US. Monica would get to release the song’s American version. Lawrence produced Eternal’s version of “Angel Of Mine,” which made the greatest-hits deadline, and the song reached #4 in the UK. It ended up being Eternal’s last hit; they broke up soon after.
None of this could happen today. The very idea of two different versions of the same song being marketed on two different sides of the Atlantic is a relic of a pre-internet past. Clive Davis, the king of the late-20th-century music execs, had an innate sense of how to push a record, and he kept that trick up for a shockingly long time, but his approach was a decidedly old-school one. Davis made his bones by signing acts like Janis Joplin and Aerosmith, but he really hit his stride when he loaded Whitney Houston up with vaguely comforting middle-of-the-road ballads and turned her into a megastar. With Monica, who was so young when she first got famous, Davis only slightly updated the Whitney Houston playbook. “Angel Of Mine” is ultimately an old-fashioned pop ballad, and an old-fashioned pop ballad could still hit #1 in 1999.
Like Whitney Houston before her, Monica started off young, and she sang in churches before she reached towards pop. Before she started working with Clive Davis, though, Monica was a protege of the young R&B producer Dallas Austin. Monica’s 1995 debut album Miss Thang was pretty much just Monica singing throaty melisma over chopped-up rap beats, like a much-younger Mary J. Blige. Monica could always project attitude, and that’s a huge part of the reason that “The Boy Is Mine,” her hugely successful Brandy duet, popped off the way that it did. A sappy pop ballad like “Angel Of Mine” isn’t as geared towards Monica’s strengths as a clubby track like “The First Night,” Monica’s second pop chart-topper, but Monica still did her best with it.
Monica recorded her version of “Angel Of Mine” with Rodney Jerkins, the Brandy collaborator who’d co-produced “The Boy Is Mine” and who’d figured out a sparkling, streamlined take on Timbaland’s bizarrely spacey R&B productions. On “Angel Of Mine,” Jerkins” kept the sleek acoustic-guitar line from Eternal’s version of the song — a sound so clean that it feels almost unreal. Jerkins also switched the tempo up a bit and added some subtle synth accents and some itchy drum-machine programming. Those touches aren’t enough to keep “Angel Of Mine” from sounding sleepy, but they were enough to set it apart from some of the other pop balladry that was on the charts at the time.
It seems basic to compare Brandy and Monica, but Brandy did get to #1 with her own pop ballad “Have You Ever?” just before Monica got there with “Angel Of Mine.” Diane Warren wrote “Have You Ever?,” and David Foster produced it; it’s fully a creation of the ’90s pop establishment. “Angel Of Mine” hits a lot of the same marks as “Have You Ever?,” but it’s got just a little bit more going on musically, and that helps. Monica also brings a hint of gospel to her vocal. She goes heavy on the melisma like every other ’90s R&B singer, but there’s a nice huskiness in her lower range. Like Brandy, Monica also sings her own backup vocals and lets those backup vocals carry a lot of the melody. But I like Monica’s leads a lot better than her backups, which just kind of fade into the background for me.
Ultimately, “Angel Of Mine” is one more sappy ballad from a time that had no shortage of sappy ballads. But the song has stuck in my head a little more than a lot of the other sappy ballads from that time; the chorus melody is strong enough to pop up in my head whenever I see the song’s title. It’s nowhere near Monica’s best work, but it’s not bad, either.
“Angel Of Mine” also has the benefit of a pretty fun video. Diane Martel directed the clip, and it stars Tyrese Gibson as Monica’s love interest. At the time, Tyrese had already been a model, and he’d only just started recording R&B and working as an obnoxious VJ on MTV. (Tyrese’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “How You Gonna Act Like That,” peaked at #7. It’s a 3.) Two years after he showed up in the “Angel Of Mine” video, Tyrese made his big-screen debut as the lead of John Singleton’s Baby Boy, playing a role that Singleton had originally intended for Tupac Shakur. Two years after that, Singleton made 2 Fast 2 Furious, and when Vin Diesel wouldn’t come back for the sequel, Singleton cast Tyrese. These days, Tyrese mostly just seems to make Fast & Furious movies and show up in crap like Morbius, and good for him. I like Tyrese a lot better as resident Toretto Crew comic-relief wiseass Roman Pearce than as an R&B singer or MTV VJ.
In the “Angel Of Mine” video, Monica and Tyrese lock eyes outside a nightclub right before their friends get into a fistfight, and we get a nice little proto-Matrix bullet time moment. (The Matrix opened in theaters a month and a half after “Angel Of Mine” reached #1, so the Wachowskis presumably weren’t ripping off a Monica video, but it’s fun to pretend otherwise.) Soon enough, we find out that this is one of those clubs were everyone goes into elaborate swing-dancing routines, which places this firmly in the late ’90s. Most of what follows is pretty rote R&B-romance stuff with two extremely good-looking leads, but I like that Diane Martel did everything in her power to make a video for an old-fashioned pop ballad into something fun.
Like a lot of the other hits of its era, “Angel Of Mine” did well in multiple radio formats, landing high on Billboard‘s R&B and adult contemporary charts. When the song reached #1, Monica’s album The Boy Is Mine was platinum, and it eventually went triple platinum — a good number, though you’d expect an album with three different #1 hits to sell more than that. After “Angel Of Mine,” Monica wouldn’t show up on the Hot 100 for another couple of years, and that gap mostly comes down to a terribly cataclysmic life moment.
Monica had fallen in love with Jarvis Weems, a young man from Atlanta who’d grown up rough and who was mourning his brother, who’d died in a car accident. In 2000, a distraught Weems called Monica from his brother’s gravesite. Monica went to the cemetery to meet Weems, and Weems shot himself right in front of her, dying and leaving her traumatized. Monica also dated Master P’s brother C-Murder, who was convicted of murder in 2003 and who remains incarcerated, though he maintains his innocence.
Monica’s next album had a couple of false starts. Two soundtrack singles did anemic chart numbers, and All Eyez On Me, the album that was supposed to come out in 2002, never saw American release. The early singles did badly, and the record leaked online. Monica reworked the album and released it as After The Storm in 2003. The album debuted at #1 and went gold. Missy Elliott co-wrote and co-produced the single “So Gone,” which peaked at #10 and which found a second life as a viral-challenge thing a few years ago. (It’s an 8.)
Monica hasn’t had a top-10 hit since “So Gone,” and she hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2010’s “Love All Over Me” peaked at #58. But Monica’s still in the mix. She’s done some acting, and she had a reality show on BET for a little while. She had a couple of kids with the Atlanta rapper Rocko, and the oldest of those kids is now the SoundCloud rapper and producer Rodneyy. (Rocko’s highest-charting single, the 2013 Rick Ross/Future collab “UOENO,” peaked at #20.)
After Monica and Rocko broke up, she spent eight years married to the NBA player Shannon Brown, whom she met when he played the love interest in her “Love All Over Me” video. Monica doesn’t make pop hits anymore, and she’s no longer on a major label, but she’s still very much a factor on the R&B charts. Monica’s most recent single is 2020’s “Trenches,” a Neptunes-produced Lil Baby collab, and it peaked at #12 R&B. (Good song.)
Those statistics are a testament to R&B’s current place in the world. Monica is still a vital presence within the genre, but it’s been 13 years since she dented the Hot 100. That says less about Monica herself and more about a changing musical climate. Monica came along in the ’90s, a time when R&B singers had a real shot at pop dominance. That time ended, but most of the people who reigned in that era are still around, still making music. At the time, I thought that era of R&B dominance felt a little stultifying. Now, I kind of miss it. We never know what we had until it’s gone.
BONUS BEATS: In 2018, two decades after its release, Monica sang a really nice version of “Angel Of Mine” on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Here’s her performance:
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.