Monica Blaire has grown accustomed to the status quo suppressing her. Metro Times' November 2005 music issue even declared her "The best struggling talent who confirms that the music industry is too lazy to concern itself with creativity." But if she's struggled in the past few years to define herself, it's to avoid being defined. By the status quo, that is.
See, the 24-year-old Blaire is a quadruple threat, all hyperbole aside. In an industry where women are often fashioned from cookie-cutters, this woman defies convention as a songwriter, dancer, singer and emcee, writing songs that slither restlessly through hip hop, R&B and even rock 'n' roll. Further, her stage show is nothing nice.
One definition: Blaire's got Busta Rhymes' combustion, the rugged appeal of Philly soul-stirrer Jaguar Wright and a presence that's all her own. "Oh, I don't know," she says, relaxing amid the chatty bustle of Bastone brewpub in Royal Oak, "I really just do what comes out."
There's a considerable anticipation for her debut solo disc, Portraits of Me, which sees a CD release show this week in Detroit. Blaire is also, you'll note, the frontwoman for the all-female rocktet Lola Valley.
Both the band and solo album come at long last, after a series of setbacks. Blaire had a seemingly sweet deal with PAJAM, the hot-tip Detroit production camp known for its work with 'N Sync, Missy Elliott and gospel sensation J. Moss. But Blaire says PAJAM wanted to use blatant sex appeal and mainstream mimicry to attract fans, and she couldn't bring herself to do it. So she bailed.
"I'm definitely not mad," she says, "'cause it showed me a lot about what to do and what not to do."
What she almost did was get sexy in a Diddy sort of way. And in all fairness, positioning Blaire as the latest diva wouldn't be a stretch for anyone looking for an easy marketing out. She stands about 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a caramel complexion and dancer hips. A Detroit dancer. Keep it real. But Blaire prefers not to reveal all that, because she's more concerned about harnessing the energy that makes Detroit exactly what it is, a fucked-up but beautifully inspirational city.
"There's kind of a sense of hopelessness that happens here amongst the people," she says. "It's one of the things that makes Detroit a great place to make music."
So after she left PAJAM a few years ago, she was disillusioned. She got a job hosting bar mitzvahs, to pay the bills. Then the opportunity to front Lola Valley arose.
"That was a chance for me to kick and punch, but not really hurt anybody," she says. The band instantly turned many heads and by last year it had a respectable following. Blaire was, as they say, back in the saddle.
That's also when she began working with Shaphan "Maestro" Williams' Silent Riot crew. The two had known each another since childhood, and he worked at Guitar Center, a place she frequented. Williams and partners Londell "Diszazta" Williamson, Marv Won of Fat Killahz and Paul "Quarantine" Johnson had also launched a record company.
"I'm not really excited by a lot of musicians," Williams says. "She does stuff that I really wouldn't think to do. You ever heard a song and think like, 'Man, I wish I would've done that!' She's an extension of my music, a missing link."
Williams and Blaire turned out to be missing links in other ways. An intimate relationship developed from the creative one, inspiring Blaire to write and record Portraits of Me in two and a half weeks. It weaves easily through soulful ballads, adrenaline-rushed hip hop and raw lyricism, and should please both underground and mainstream audiences. Platinum producer and D12 member Kon Artist (Denaun Porter) handles the boards for the song "Get Back," The Platinum Pied Pipers' Wajeed also lends production, and the Silent Riot crew covers the rest of the ground. Guests on the album include Detroit faves Miz Korona, Invincible and Guilty Simpson.
And there are declarations in Portraits, statements that summarize Blaire's past while presenting her present and future. "Nah, I ain't confused about what I need to do," she rhymes on "Confused," where she's joined by Korona and Invincible. "I ain't shakin' my ass/I ain't showin' my boobs/If you need all that, then this ain't for you ... You got it confused/I'm not listenin' to you."
Having learned from the PAJAM episode, she's even made some concessions that she once refused, such as opening up to new marketing avenues. Cabarets and churches have become fair game for shows, and hers is the voice listeners now hear singing the interludes on WJLB's Quiet Storm program that airs nightly in the wee hours.
Blaire treats her broadened perspective as part of the learning curve. "In Detroit, the way that you get your music put on is the DJs. Period. You gotta get the DJs to play it. You have to go to the titty bar, the neighborhood bar or block party. The club. The DJs are gonna put you on, where most people think radio is gonna put you on."
Later, Blaire's in her car out front of Bastone blasting tracks from Portraits. She bobs her head furiously as passers-by look sideways, as if they're seeing something weirder than the goth kids gathered in front of Caribou Coffee. Of course, Blaire is oblivious. To acknowledge their looks is to conform to some notion that perhaps she's different. Or maybe she doesn't care. Who knows? But unlike many artists, Monica Blaire's in no rush to give you exactly what you're accustomed to. When you see and hear her, she'll be uncut and raw. And she's betting that, this time, you'll love it.
Aug. 11, at Fifth Avenue Downtown, 2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-2555. With Hot Sauce. Visit her Web site at monicablaire.com.Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org