On the campy interlude that opens Monica’s new album, the singer receives a pep talk from Mary J. Blige before intoning, “I’ve gotta embrace my new life,” with such gravity that it sounds like she’s reading someone’s last rites. If nothing else, this opener suggests that New Life will at least bring some high drama and might even find Monica making good on the huge influence Blige’s brand of contemporary soul has had on her career. Unfortunately, the album does neither.
Instead, it squanders Monica’s on-point vocal turns on some cliché-addled songs and embarrassingly cheap-sounding production. The melody of “Without You” allows Monica to show off the breadth of her range, but with its reverb-heavy percussion line, the track’s production immediately recalls—and pales in comparison to—Beyoncé‘s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone.” But while it’s both a dated knockoff and a phoned-in effort from Polow da Don, “Without You” is still one of the better tracks on a messy, underwhelming set.
With 11 different producers credited on just 10 songs, it’s no surprise that New Life is so scattered and uneven, but the album still sounds shockingly cheap. Missy Elliott brings nothing more to the ballad “Until It’s Gone” than a pedestrian beat and chintzy quiet-storm keyboards, while the distracting, amelodic electronic bleeps that Jermaine Dupri loops throughout “Amazing” are mixed as loudly as Monica’s vocal track. “Cry” and “Big Mistake” lack any sort of texture or distinction, forcing Monica to try to elevate the banal songs through her performances alone.
To the singer’s credit, she continues to develop a husky, robust lower register that makes her voice even more distinctive. But she rarely has the opportunity to showcase her voice on material that’s worthy of her talent. The slow-burning “Time to Move On,” with its light-handed use of Stax-era vintage sounds, is the album’s obvious standout, and Monica’s delivery is full-bodied and multifaceted. “Man Who Has Everything,” which Rico Love gives a reggae-inspired arrangement, is really the only other track on the album that offers anything more than rote, anonymous modern R&B. Blige may tell Monica that she should be thankful for a “blessed life,” but New Life makes it painfully clear that she hasn’t been blessed with collaborators who know how to highlight her skills.