Album Review: Victoria Monét – Jaguar II

[Lovett/RCA; 2023]

Victoria Monét’s impact on the current state of pop music is underappreciated. Not only was she instrumental in establishing the pop star of a generation in Ariana Grande, but the course of Grande’s career has only seen her music become more R&B, and therefore more Victoria Monét. Beyond that, she’s managed to transform herself to pen hits for acts from Fifth Harmony to Nas. Admirable certainly, influential for sure, but does it translate to her own material? Many behind-the-scenes figures before, from Nasri to Julia Michaels, have failed to sustain stardom simply because they didn’t have any popstar gravitas to them. So how does Monét fare?

The answer is somewhere in between extremes. She does not take on the indie aesthetic of a Jack Antonoff, nor the laborious superstar flair of many of her collaborators. Yet somehow she is in no way ignorable. She pulls focus in a suave manner akin to a Motown star of old. In this follow-up to her 2020 EP Jaguar, she commands even more respect while trying even less.

Lead single “Smoke” sees Monét and Lucky Daye breeze through a mid-tempo groove that announces itself as ‘that shit you smoke to’ with subdued R&B that evokes passion at its softest. An interlude slows the tempo down further for an atmosphere that evokes the warmth at the end of a summer day, perfectly easing into the second single “Party Girls” with reggae veteran Buju Banton. As the song meanders softly with Monét’s voice inviting one in and Banton’s voice enlivening the atmosphere the listener is almost transported to the ocean. It is an impressive opening three-track run, all the more because for how captivating it is, it does not for one moment sound effortful. Monét doesn’t convey her music’s sentiment so much as ooze it by nature of who she is.

That’s not to say Monét is incapable of trying though. “Alright”, the second shortest song, is also the most airtight. Atop a moody, rhythmic production courtesy of Haitian producer Kaytranada, Monét proudly puts her own desires over those of the men she encounters with lyrics impossible to quote because the sharpest line is the whole song. It’s alluring and minimal, sassy and precise, it’s the closest the singer will come to bringing her natural coolness into diva territory. As one song bleeds into the other in a perfectly smooth transition, so does Monét’s self-affirming confidence follow her into “Cadillac (A Pimp’s Anthem)”. If the title didn’t tell you, her surprisingly dexterous rapping will: she is stepping into the position of power you’d expect from men in her industry, not by force but simply because she can. In a style reminiscent of Jay-Z, Victoria Monét has it and doesn’t have to be seen lifting a finger to get it.

Unlike Jay-Z however, Victoria Monét doesn’t make heavy records. The breezy “How Does It Make You Feel” is a welcome pause from the verbal smack-downs for some soft romance which in her own words you can “hear in [her] tone”. Monét is one with the soulfulness of the melody, her voice not any less perfectly fitted in the composition than the strings in the outro. Another perfect transition leads into the catchiest bassline of the whole project in “Oh My Mama”. While this is the “7 Rings” songwriter at her most pop-ready and authentic, with a production that plays to her every strength, it’s not where she is working the hardest so much as where she seems to be having the most fun. Tongue-in-cheek lines like ‘I’m so deep in my bag like a grandma with a peppermint’ add a relatable flavor to her unfiltered charisma, while every production choice is a hook unto itself. An obvious single choice, it’s the kind of song that is hard to not have on replay.

For all the fun though, Monét hits just as hard when she is playing it straight. Lyrics like “even if you wrote a whole list ’bout a bitch naming every wish then God whispered you my name / and then angels appeared and carried me out of here into your bed and I gave it to you perfect” take a tailor-made melody and surgically precise amounts of frustration in the delivery in order to not be ridiculous. In “I’m The One” Monét rises to the occasion; it’s an impressive emotional punch. As the jazzy following track “Stop (Asking Me 4 Shyt)” shows, though, it’s a little more fun to be above it all. Monét performs over musical blends of the traditional and the modern like this one with such ease one would think it’s how she speaks, and each time the title line comes around it’s infectious as can be.

In something of a power move, almost at the end of the record, the singer brings in her most respect-demanding song. “Hollywood” sees Monét cooing out reflections about the showbiz life alongside classic R&B icons Earth, Wind & Fire, finishing it all off with an audio snippet of her child’s voice. This record is pure talent, this song being no exception, but it’s also a reminder of the intelligence and the authorial intent behind it all. Finishing it all is “Goodbye”, a song so reminiscent of late 70s soul it could have been in the discography of Monét’s collaborators in the song before. It is a smooth, perfectly delivered closer that shows that even in a time when throwbacks are the main trend nobody is doing quite like the “Do It” songwriter.

I don’t expect huge numbers for this record, for much the same reason I will be counting the days until Monét’s next release: her vision of R&B is unfiltered and uncompromising. At her most modern, she is advancing her genre rather than watering it down for current tastes. Things her songwriting could only hint at in the work of others are here in full, and they make for a beautiful end product. Monét doesn’t ride her beats so much as float over them. She carries that rare Janet Jackson/Missy Elliot quality of performing like someone who is absolutely in love with their own music. Though she’s opted for EPs instead of albums thus far, her projects feel complete, with this one far surpassing its predecessor in consistency and cohesion. Not one second is wasted. If behind the scenes she has gained hits, I hope her time in the spotlight gets her some deserved acclaim, along with a bigger captive audience. Victoria Monét has the skill and the career of an icon, and it would be a huge mistake for the public to not treat her as such.