The year of 1998 belonged to R&B singer Monica. 

She not only topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a whopping 13 weeks with “The Boy Is Mine,” her duet with Brandy, she launched another hit with “The First Night,” which logged five weeks on top of the pop charts. No other artist in that year spent more weeks at No. 1 than Monica.

Both songs appeared on her sophomore album, The Boy Is Mine, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Not only did Monica dominate 1998 — her success spilled over to 1999: Her album’s third single, “Angel of Mine,” also became a No. 1 Hot 100 hit and was the third most-successful song of that year.

Released when she was just 17 years old following the triumph of her 1995 debut Miss Thing, the now 43-year-old — who released the single “Letters” in June on her own imprint MonDeenise Music and will drop her album Trenches in 2024 — reflects on her second project, explains why she initially didn’t want to record a duet about women arguing over a man, and gifting her mother her first and only Grammy Award in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

What comes to mind when you think of The Boy Is Mine turning 25?

MONICA It’s a blessing to still be acknowledged and feel appreciated and feel loved. I’ve always said that I was a bit of an underdog, but it was a place that I never said I didn’t want to be because I didn’t see it in a negative light. I was very much a product of my environment at that time. I was still working on myself. I recorded the album at the age most people are focused on learning to drive, and I graduated high school during that time, and there was a lot happening for me and I lived out loud in front of the public. So there were a lot of different things happening both personally and professionally, so when I look at all of those things collectively, I don’t just think of the music.

Monica in 2000.

George De Sota/Liaison/Getty Images

Did you take off any time between Miss Thang and The Boy Is Mine

MONICA We did not take any time off. I didn’t believe in time off. For me, music was a way to change my family’s life. I didn’t grow up wanting to be famous, I just loved singing, and singing was a place of peace and solace for me. It brought so much peace and serenity, especially because I had somewhat of a tumultuous childhood. So I had an amazing mom, who was always encouraging me and supporting me to be a part of whatever I wanted to be a part of, and music ended up really being my calling. I didn’t fully understand what it would require, and I think that’s what made me relatable and allowed me to connect with an audience in an authentic way that still exists to this very day.

Your first album went triple platinum and launched four hits. What was it like going into your sophomore album after that success?

MONICA Going into album No. 2 was actually really fun for me because it was still an escape for a teenager that was in the process of really finding herself. I believed in working hard. My parents were extremely hard workers that came from nothing and created a lot for themselves, defied a lot of odds, so I grew up seeing people work hard. Having a grandmother that was up before we were up for school to make homemade biscuits and things like that, you don’t realize that what you see really does play a huge part in who you become and the way that you work. So even though I was a child, I was working at an extremely high level. I was multitasking, working both albums in different ways, and I was on tour. I believe it was the Nickelodeon tour at that time.

Do you remember the first song you recorded for The Boy Is Mine?

MONICA “For You I Will.” [It] was a statement record for me. I had always expressed that, yes, I’m a young woman that’s from urban America that speaks to a very specific crowd at times, but I wanted to be clear that I’m not limited to one genre or the other. It wasn’t as beautifully merged as it is now. You either did R&B or pop, you separated them a lot of times. I didn’t want to separate it. I didn’t want to put limitations on myself, so I wanted to work with David Foster and Diane Warren. This was a direct request of mine because I wanted to show that these were also the types of records that I could absolutely perform. 

When I landed in L.A., I kept saying that I didn’t feel well and I didn’t know what to do. [My cousin and manager Melinda] said, “The first thing we should do is get to the hospital. We have a couple of hours, let’s see if you’re OK.” Well, they told me I had walking pneumonia and 104 fever, and I let them give me a couple things and I checked out Cedars Sinai and I went and recorded “For You I Will.” So it was just a testament to my dedication. It was a testament to my versatility. 

For instance, “Right Here Waiting” was a song that my father played for me when I was a little bit younger. I heard it a couple of times and I fell in love with it. It was by Richard Marx, and I told David Foster that I wanted to remake it and he was absolutely shocked that [it] was one of my all-time favorite records. And he redid it so beautifully for me, so that relationship opened up the door to an even greater relationship. 

And some things happened at David’s house that are still so special to me. Linda Thompson was his wife at the time, and she had read that I experienced the death of my boyfriend at the time. And she and I started talking and I started explaining to her how it felt and how difficult it was, and how I tried to always still make sure that when I was in rooms, I made sure people felt the love in my heart even though I was in an extreme amount of pain and even though my heart was broken. And she told me that I was doing a really great job, and then she explained to me that she was Elvis’s girlfriend when he passed away, and she and I had a conversation that was life-changing for me. And those are = things that you don’t plan for that are just Godly. They’re orchestrated by him. I felt like our meeting was aligned, but all of that stemmed from me going to work with David Foster for the Space Jam soundtrack [to record “For You I Will”]. So it was so much that transpired during that album that cultivated who I am not just as an artist, but as a woman.

How did you get involved with “The Boy Is Mine” with Brandy?

MONICA I was discovered by Kevin Wells and Dallas Austin, and Dallas became a father figure in my life because at the time, my relationship with my biological father was extremely strained. It’s beautiful now, but it wasn’t that at the time. And he and I would talk about what my ultimate goals were, and he always promised to love and protect me throughout the process of me learning the industry. So the way I heard any song that you would hear me on during that time frame was through Dallas, and Dallas sat me down and he played the song for me. And my initial response was, “Well, why would we make a song like this?” Because I would never fight over a boy, not like this, and we laughed. And it was very lighthearted and said in a joking manner because I was thinking to myself, “Would I actually do that?”

And in this particular form, I’m like, “I don’t think so.” And he said, “Monica, you are a force to be reckoned with; Brandy is a force to be reckoned with; you all coming together is going to be incredible.” And with the level of trust and respect that I had for him, it was definitely a no-brainer. With the level of respect that I had for Brandy and her artistry, it was a no-brainer at that point. So I actually recorded it in L.A. It was my first time meeting Rodney Jerkins and Fred Jerkins and LaShawn Daniels. They were all such a major part of it all, and she and I just started working on the vocals there.

You and Brandy won a Grammy for “The Boy Is Mine” — where did you put your Grammy?

MONICA I gifted my mother my Grammy for Mother’s Day the following Mother’s Day. Because there is no me without her — the moral compass that I have, the voice. My mother also sings, but she only sings at church sometimes after my papa preaches. She’s not the type that wants to sing in the public’s eye, she always just sings for the glory of God. But I get all of these important things from her, all of the teachings that people respect about me from her. I felt like the greatest way to honor her was to say, “Listen, I wouldn’t be here without you.” We had it encased and given to her, and she always loved it because it lights up and she could click it on when people came over. It was a focal point.

Brandy and Monica

Brandy and Monica at the 1999 Grammy Awards.

Dan Callister/Getty Images

There has been chatter over the years about others possibly remaking “The Boy Is Mine.” Would you like to see two singers redo it? 

MONICA I truthfully believe that it’s for Brandy and I. I appreciate that she and Rodney asked me to be a part of the song and be a part of the record, but for me, it’s a part of history that I would love to remain untouched. Now, I have heard the music used that is cool when people recreate it for themselves but not attempt to do what she and I did. If someone does something with it, I prefer that they make it their own and do something totally different, but I feel like what she and I did is sacred. 

When was the last time you and Brandy performed it together?

MONICA I don’t recall. I would think it has to be Verzuz [in August 2020].

How is your relationship with Brandy now?

MONICA We are more than good. I [turned] 43 in October. I have nothing but love and admiration in my heart for her, and I’m good with everyone. I don’t have any issues with anyone. As far as she and I go, a lot of what people hear is about two teenage girls. Now we’re two grown women, that’s a completely different thing. So it’s something that I kind of wish would go away, to be very honest. I wish people would stop putting the two against each other. I wish people would stop attempting to compare who sing better, who looks better, who outdid the other one, because I never came into the space with a spirit of competition anyway. I came into the space with the spirit of winning for us both because we both represent two very special groups of people, and I don’t think we should be compared. I think we’re complete polar opposites vocally, personally, in every way, and that’s what makes it so amazing. And I wish people would just let it be that and not even compare the two or create any animosity, even within our fan groups.

Singers Brandy and Monica attend the 2011 Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute To Industry Icons Honoring David Geffen at Beverly Hilton on February 12, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California.

Brandy and Monica in 2011.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

You, Brandy and Aaliyah really represent a special era in music…

MONICA Absolutely. We do. There were three of us. Aaliyah was such a beautiful person, such a kind person. She was very non-confrontational and supportive, and it was really unfortunate we didn’t get the opportunity to befriend each other for an extremely long time, but we always communicated. We were communicating quite a bit. We were using a lot of the same hair and makeup and we would laugh and talk about that, laugh and talk about our histories in the music industry, laugh and talk about how much the music industry was starting to change at that time. But Aaliyah is just a special person. Anybody’s life that she came into in any facet, even if it was in a small way or a huge way, no matter what the relationship was, they’ll tell you she was all things love. She was all things kind. She didn’t like anything that seemed negative in nature at all. She was definitely one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever encountered in this industry, for sure.

Did you pick The Boy Is Mine as the album title?

MONICA Absolutely not. That was the legend himself, Clive Davis. I had several album titles that I brought to him and he said, “Monica, why would this album be titled anything other than The Boy is Mine?” And he had a lot of reasons as to why he felt that way, and I trusted him in every way and he was right. But that definitely was not my idea. It never crossed my mind.

“Angel of Mine” also topped the Hot 100 chart for multiple weeks. Most people don’t know it’s a cover — what made you want to remake that song?

MONICA What I loved about Dallas was since he knew me so well far beyond the music, he never explained to me that it was a cover until I actually recorded my own [version]. I think it was very smart of him not to play me the original until after I recorded it. And Soulshock & Karlin, all of them that were a part of it were just amazing at allowing me to be me. I think one of the things that I learned most about myself during the making of my first two albums is that I can’t do anything that isn’t truly me. When I sing a song, I don’t like to listen to references. I don’t like to do that.

“The First Night” also hit No. 1. Was that the first time you worked with Jermaine Dupri?

MONICA “The First Night” was the first time that Jermaine Dupri and I ever worked together, and that was such an amazing experience for me because he really became a lifelong friend of mine. We received the record and the demo was actually J.D. himself singing it, and it was horrible. You had to hear this to understand, this man absolutely cannot sing at all, and I laugh about it all the time. I’ve really been attempting to find the demo so that I can let people hear what I was working through. But J.D. is such a realist. We’re both from the Southside of Atlanta, Georgia, and we recorded the song in his mom’s basement.

We knew that this wasn’t going to be a one-off, a one-time thing. We had a lot in common. The records are still coming today. I’m still getting records from my friend to this day, but it all happened because of “The First Night.”

That year was also your big dress era, especially in the music videos for “Street Symphony” and “Just Another Girl.”

MONICA You’re recalling it correctly. I was starting to find myself. I’ve asked people to let go of the white shoes from the “Before You Walk Out of My Life” curb scene for many years now. I didn’t care about clothing at that time. I was in survival mode, for sure. But by the time The Boy Is Mine was released, I was definitely in the era and in the space of finding and figuring out who I was in every way. So as you do that and you develop who you are, you start to figure out what you like, what you want to wear, what you enjoy wearing. I’ve always loved long dresses. One of my favorite looks throughout my career, it was done by Derek Khan, whom I love. He brought this skirt and he kept saying that the split was giving fever. I didn’t fully understand what he meant until I saw it, and I wore it in a scene in “The Boy is Mine.” 

The black skirt!

MONICA The black skirt. It’s still one of my favorites to this day. I would wear that very look and same hairdo right now — timeless. It’s important that as you learn who you are, you share that in your music. I know that for some artists, unfortunately, it’s been dictated to them, and I know there’s reasoning behind that, but that just was never who I was. So I always made sure that the things that I wore after that were things that I really loved and enjoyed and appreciated.

Monica at the 1999 Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, CA on February 24, 1999

Monica at the 1999 Grammy Awards.

Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images

You also wore a bunch of armbands, which I thought was a fashion statement at the time…

MONICA Well, that’s what I wanted people to think because for me, I remember the disappointment, the frustration and the anger that my mother had towards me for actually sneaking and getting a tattoo. That’s what actually transpired. It’s not like she approved of me going off and doing that, and I hid it from her for quite some time and one day I decided to tell her. So when I would get dressed, I would think of how she felt and I would think of how other people’s moms may have felt if they saw that that’s what I had done, and maybe other kids felt like, “Monica did it, I can too.”

So I didn’t want that to be the sentiment. I made a poor choice in going against my mother and doing something that she completely did not want me to do, and I just felt like it was a way of me being responsible, and I thought that was a cool way to do it. So the armbands, oftentimes I would find headbands because it wasn’t a thing, and we would have different seamstresses make them fit my arm. That wasn’t something that existed, that I walked in the store and bought. It was an idea I had, and we made it work.

This year also marks another big anniversary for you — it’s been 20 years since you released your third album, After the Storm, which featured a collaboration with late rapper DMX. What was it like working with X?

MONICA You know what? He had this larger than life personality, but this subtle sweet nature of a guy that just wanted to be loved and appreciated and respected, that was so strong. I am definitely a preacher’s kid of sorts. My mom married a Methodist minister when I was 11 years old. I absolutely adore him and they’re still married to this day, so he raised me, and I could feel that in him. And what for most would’ve probably been one session, a couple of hours, the end, we ended up spending almost three days together in L.A. just hanging out. We were going different places in his lowriders, and he brought all of his dogs for me to see and see how much he loved them. And he just talked about his wife and family and how much they all meant to him and how important his kids were to him. He was aggressive, but very gentle in this really interesting way.

And as soon as he heard the song, he kept saying really fast, “I got it. I got it, I got it, I got it,” but he wanted me to stay in the studio while he recorded. And since I don’t drink or smoke, I attempted as best I could to stay in the booth while he recorded, and I’m so thankful that I did. Nothing short of musical genius watching him create. And he wasn’t writing anything down, and he had this thing that he loved, which was this spice. It was green. I don’t recall what he said it was called, but he would put this spice all over the food every time we ate, all three days. It didn’t matter where we went. We went to Roscoe’s one day, we went to another restaurant another day. We were just pretty much hanging out because he said, “I don’t want to just do a record with you, I want to get to know you,” and that’s exactly what happened and he forever remained my brother after.

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Freelance journalist covering Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Bylines in the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, The Telegraph and other outlets. Past TV work for ABC News US, Al Jazeera English and TRT World. Previously reported out of Taiwan.

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