Back in the mid-90s, when R&B ruled the musical landscape, there were three young divas who dominated the airwaves.
– Brandy, the good girl who became America’s sweetheart. Y’all think people hate on Beyonce now? Bey envy is NOTHING compared to Brandy hate circa 1995.
– Monica, the street-smart chick with the voice of an angel. At 16 years old, she could outsing any old lady in the church choir and probably could cuss her out too.
– And Aaliyah, who embodied the qualities of both her peers. She was the girl next door who comfortably fit in with the guys.
While most music fans were caught up in the talents of those three ladies, my heart belonged to another – teenage R&B star Mona Lisa. In 1996, y’all couldn’t tell me nothing. I was marrying that chick.
Now before y’all go running over to the wifey’s blog to snitch on me, give a brother a break. If she can lust over goofy Justin Timberlake and that light-skinned brother from Grey’s Anatomy, I can certainly retell the story of my childhood crush.
For those of you who don’t recall Mona Lisa’s brief flirtation with fame, I’ll remind you.
Mona Lisa’s rise to stardom mimics many others we’ve featured in this column. Kimberly Leadbetter was born in Union, South Carolina before moving to Yonkers, New York. She honed her vocals in church, started racking up victories on the talent show circuit and then turned heads at THE World Famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. You’re required by law to introduce the Apollo Theatre as “THE world famous,” or Kiki Shepard will appear and smash you in the head with that giant block of wood. She’s like Candyman in a catsuit.
At age 15, Kimberly met Hiriam Hicks, CEO of Island Black Music, a subsidiary of Island Records. She floored him with an a cappella rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and she was soon signed to her first record label.
Now known as Mona Lisa, she put that dusty old painting to shame.
Sorry da Vinci, your girl can’t hang.
Mona Lisa’s first single debuted on the … deep breath … Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood soundtrack in early 1996. “Can’t Be Wasting My Time” fit right into R&B’s landscape – an authoritative cut fueled by strong vocals. The Lost Boyz, who were on fire at the time, show up to provide a little street credibility. It was the perfect debut track, making Mo sort of a mini Mary J. Blige. She also teamed with Lil Kim on “Time to Shine,” which was featured on this soundtrack as well.
Remember when Lil’ Kim looked, sounded and behaved like a human being?
I miss the 90s.
“Can’t Be Wasting My Time” paved the way for Mo’s summer debut album, 11-20-79, obviously her birth date. More proof we were meant to be – Mona Lisa was born almost exactly a month after I was. She should have rethought that color scheme though on her album cover, though. My old man eyes can barely read her name across that checkerboard kitchen tablecloth.
Mona Lisa dropped the somber “You Said,” which was made even more depressing by the video, featuring her longing for her absentee father. Although she sounded great, I guess the subject matter was too heavy – it didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. R&B singers can’t pull off that Fiona Apple stuff well.
Also overlooked was “Just Wanna Please U,” an absolute banger remixed by, sigh, Stevie J. Remember when Stevie J actually made music instead of setting black folks back 100 years on reality TV?
I miss the 90s.
11-20-79 sold modestly, peaking at No. 38 on the R&B charts. It’s a shame because it was a very solid debut. It deserved more love
By the late ’90s, Island Black Music was absorbed into Def Soul/Island Def Jam, which gave Mo a new home and, hopefully, a new start. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
“Peach,” was set to be the first single from her sophomore album, Gett’n It On. I only remember hearing it once or twice before it completely dropped off the map. We never saw that album but the title track landed on the Woo Soundtrack. It was much better than the goofy “Peach” joint.
Instead of making a futile attempt to clutch for fame, Mona Lisa wisely continued her education and explored modeling and writing. See, why can’t everyone bow out of the game gracefully?
Should She Come Back?: Come on now, do you really think I’d turn down an opportunity to
see hear Mona Lisa again? Seriously though, she’s an experienced artist young enough to not get typecast into the “R&B oldies” crowd. As long as her vocals have held up, a comeback isn’t out of the question.
Sorry, Mona, our love could never be. But we’ll always have the summer of 1996.