Earlier this year, when R&B superstars Brandy Norwood and Monica Arnold — aka Brandy & Monica, whose legendary duet “The Boy Is Mine” stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 13 weeks and was the best-selling single of 1998 — came together for their much-hyped Verzuz battle, it broke records and practically broke the internet. More than 1.2 million fans simultaneously tuned in on Instagram alone, with a total of 6 million views across all online platforms. Even future Vice President-elect Kamala Harris dropped in to surprise the women, telling them, “I just wanted to thank you ladies, you queens, you stars, you icons!”
But Monica tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that she actually declined Verzuz’s invitation at first, because she feared the battle would restart the old, semi-manufactured feud between her and her former duet partner with whom she had not spoken in eight years.
“When they initially came to me with the idea, I said no, only for one reason: I have felt that it was not OK that people feel like you have to ‘choose one.’ Everything is this consistent battle. And there’s no battle,” Monica insists. “We are completely different. As women, as artists, the way we sing, the things we sing about, where we're from, everything about us, we're polar opposites. And that’s what made ‘The Boy Is Mine’ so great. And so, I didn't want Verzuz to dredge up the comparisons again, because I love the fact that we were both in [our own] space at this point. Brandy’s voice, her incredible vocals, you know exactly who she is when you hear her — and the same applies for me. We paved ways for ourselves. I didn’t want [that rivalry] to happen again.”
Monica finally agreed to do Verzuz after the series co-founder, Swizz Beatz, assured her that he wanted their battle to be a celebration. “That’s why I signed on, because I love Brandy and the artist that she is, but you don't have to bring my name up when you bring hers up,” she says. “We’re two different people that happen to have a great record. And so I didn’t want those things to get misconstrued. But it worked out that we were able to celebrate. And the best part about Verzuz is that it allowed Brandy and I to go from not talking for eight years, to full-on open dialogue, talking about records, playing songs and kind of removing what was created between us out of the way.”
Monica acknowledges that their Verzuz broadcast had some squirmy moments, some of which shady fans instantly turned into memes. But, she explains, “What you saw when you watched the Verzuz was two women that had not been in each other’s space in years, thrust right into this moment in front of the cameras. So, even though it may have had moments that felt awkward for other people, for us, we were thinking about each moment and what’s taken place and wanting to play the records that everybody loves. … Some of the best moments were off-camera and right after Verzuz, because it just opened up a gateway to our relationship.”
The alleged feud between Brandy and Monica was part of a long-running pattern of often media-driven rivalries between female pop artists (Debbie Gibson vs. Tiffany, Mariah vs. Whitney, Britney vs. Christina, Taylor vs. Katy, etc.). Monica admits that in her and Brandy’s case, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, with reality eventually reflecting the “Brandy vs. Monica” narrative.
“[Rivalries] manifest themselves, and that’s why I’m so against them. You can’t hear that stuff for 20 years and then not create something. Even if it’s not something of merit that really has reason per se, it’s still something. And I hate that it happens that way,” Monica says. “I think our song contributed, for sure. I mean, if you listen to the song, it is kind of like a tug of war, but we tried to make sure that the video ended in us coming together. But that’s not the way it went in the media for quite some time. But it’s good to have it behind us. … And that's why I told [Brandy] that I really hope a lot of people who have been put in that position, especially women, are able to talk about whatever it is and move on.
“I’ve not figured out why that happens, though,” Monica continues, contemplating why the catfight story line is so common in pop culture in general. “I don't even like when two women wear the same jacket and the question will be ‘Who wore better?’ instead of ‘They both looked great!’ It’s something that happens all the time … and a lot of that competitive nature, it can really manifest itself through what you’re reading and what you see. I don’t care for it, but it is definitely the way that it is, and I don’t see it coming to an end anytime soon if we as women don't bring it to an end, if we don’t work together more, if we don’t do more together and openly say what we love about each other. That’s the only way that it could be halted.”
While Monica has repaired her relationship with Brandy, when it comes to future collaborations, she surprisingly has another woman in mind, one with a similar first name. It turns out Monica is a huge country music fan (“I’m from Newman, Ga., which is considered country — but to me, ‘country’ means ‘heart’”) and she’s a major fan of Americana supergroup the Highwomen, so she would love to make a full country album with the Highwomen’s Grammy-winning Brandi Carlile at the helm.
“I would probably call Brandi first — um, Brandi from the Highwomen — so that she could really sit down with me and help me. I started to think about it more when I was talking to [the Highwomen’s] Amanda [Shires] and Brandi. We had this really spiritual moment with each other; we ran into each other a while ago, and we just stayed connected,” Monica reveals. “I love each of [the Highwomen members] individually for multiple reasons … and as I listened to their records, ‘I’m like, this is it!’ … So if I really started to move in that [country] direction — not to ever leave R&B forever, that would always be what I did as the base and foundation — my goal is to really create a record first and see how it is really received. And I would want it to be well written and very well produced by someone that would be hard on me, not be afraid of me. And so, I would have Brandi help me put that all together. If it wasn’t for corona, I would go to her property and sing around the campfire some with her, and just start to learn! … That’s how my mind works. I don’t want to do anything mediocre or half-assed. I think Brandi would be the perfect person.”
In the meantime, Monica recently had the bucket-list opportunity to collaborate on the Susan G. Komen benefit single “When Pink Was Just a Color” with another country legend, Dolly Parton, one of her childhood idols. “I will not pretend for one second that I am not the hugest Dolly Parton fan. I have been for many, many, many, many years. My stepfather drives buses, and he would drive us up to Dollywood when I was very young,” recalls Monica, who has even vacationed at Dollywood with her own children. “Most people wouldn’t expect that a young girl from Georgia that’s an R&B singer would be obsessed with Dolly Parton. … But I remember hearing ‘Jolene’ when I was a little girl and then having my mom get it, and I listened to it over and over and over.”
Monica’s next musical project, however, will be in the R&B realm: her ninth studio LP, Trenches, the title track of which features guest Lil Baby and production by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes. While that song is out now, the album, which will be released on the singer’s own indie record label MonDeenise, won’t drop until early 2021. Monica is well aware that her fans are impatient for its release, especially after all of the Verzuz momentum. (After their battle, Brandy and Monica racked up a combined 20-million-plus U.S. plays on streaming services.) “People want an album. They want you to keep moving. … But I'm not a machine. I'm still a human,” she notes, citing the significance of the album’s title when discussing “the buffoonery going on in the music business” and various personal matters that have contributed to the record’s delay.
“I read something the other day and somebody was like, ‘She can't sing about trenches, because she's been a famous singer much longer than she was in the trenches.’ That's actually very untrue,” Monica begins. “Emotionally, we're all in the trenches. [COVID-19] is something that everyone's still trying to adjust to. I'm still trying to adjust to the fact that I am now a divorced single mom with three kids; I'm in the trenches of that. I'm in the trenches of figuring out my everyday life. I decided [my marriage] over in Halloween of 2018, but I didn't even get up the energy to actually file it until the following year. So now here I am, a year divorced, and I'm figuring my life out and what my kids need from me on a daily basis. Those are the trenches. So, I named the album Trenches because I'm not ashamed of what I've been through — some of it I have no control over, some of it all my fault. I'm living and learning, just like everyone else.”
And since their Verzuz reunion, she and Norwood have forged a new friendship and communicate regularly about all of these issues. “The pressure was off, and now we’re just talking and kicking it,” she says. “We're being normal. We're talking about what life is like to have teenage kids. We're talking about what it's like to be working on records and what it's like to be adjusting to the changes in music. We’re just talking about the difference between then and now, and what it's like really creating records, because no one knows what those times were like as much as she and I do. So, I'm glad that that awkwardness is gone.”
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The above interview is taken from Monica’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.