With her signature raspy powerful vocals, Syleena Johnson has been R&B's best kept secret for over a decade.
The Chicago native was introduced to music at an early age through her father, 1970s soul singer Syl Johnson. With her old school backing, she later launched her own career in the late '90s with her debut album Love Hanger. But her 2002 album, Chapter 2: The Voice eventually solidified her status as a millennium soul star. Johnson's collaboration with fellow "windy city" native Kanye West on the track "All Falls Down" gleaned her both a Grammy and an MTV Video Music Award Nomination. She later went on to work with a string of notable artists including Common, Jermaine Dupri, Twista and Anthony Hamilton.
Now, Johnson is gearing up for the release of her latest album, Chapter V: Underrated. Her latest collection of soulful and moving tracks features collaborations with Chicago rap trio Do or Die and singer Tweet. The AFRO spoke to Johnson about the new album, her career and her thoughts on R&B music's current state.
AFRO: You've been in the music industry for a considerable amount of time. What has been your driving force throughout the years?
Syleena Johnson: It's been my fans. They're the ones who have kept me motivated.
AFRO: Why did you decide to name your current album Underrated?
Syleena Johnson: Again, it came from the fans. I actually asked them what they believed the album should be called. We had a couple titles and this one came back the strongest. I think it's a strong title, following along with my other albums because I always think about certain places that I am in my life. So, I think that "Underrated" is a good word for how I feel and where I am musically right now.
AFRO: On the new album, there's a track called "Angry Girl" with Tweet that seems pretty interesting. Explain how that song came to life.
Syleena Johnson: "Angry Girl" is an awesome song and I hope that women can embrace it. It's not really an [empowerment] song, but it's about an angry woman that has been bruised, hurt and does not let go of her anger [stemming] from how she's been treated. It's not just always about the man doing wrong. Sometimes, women are equally responsible for how these men have been behaving.
"Angry Girl" is one of the songs that I wanted to challenge myself with lyrically because with R&B, we always talk about the same kind of topics. We rarely talk specifically about situations within love. Love is the basis of R&B but there are so many facets that we can speak on.
AFRO: You come from a musical family and you were exposed to some of the veterans of the R&B genre coming up; what's your take on the current status of R&B?
Syleena Johnson: I have mixed feelings. I think it gets too much of a bad rap. I'll be 35 [pretty soon], but when I was 19 or 20, I thought the music that my dad and them did was old school. To them, that was real music. What I was doing 15 years ago was current [at the time]. That was around the time of Sisqo's "Thong Song" and Brittany Spears and all that. I bet you [artists like] Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner were looking at us like, "that's a mess, that's not real music." Now, it's my generation looking at these younger artists like "that's a mess–it's just history repeating itself. However, I do believe technology has taken away the validity and authenticity of what [real singers do]. Now, it's like my four-year-old can make an album, put it out and it can go to the top. That's a problem. When you come over into my field, I expect that to be your talent. I know that people have to do what they can to make their money but it has to be other ways.
AFRO: With your music, you give pure, unadulterated accounts of the tribulations and triumph of women, but more specifically black women. A lot of artists that are out now don't have that same "tell it like it is" message in their music. Has it been challenging throughout your career to hold onto that?
Syleena Johnson: It has not been challenging to hold on to, but it's been challenging to sell. The industry…is not real keen on a woman who speaks blatantly. If a woman speaks like that, she's pegged as a Mavis Staples or Betty Wright –like a special kind of something, not just an R&B artist. Most of the time, a lot of women don't even write their own lyrics. It's very few of us like Jill Scott and Keri Hilson–real writers. I think that in general, it's kind of hard to be a woman who has her own mind anyway in this industry because it's male-dominated. But my albums are about my life. I know that from my heart to yours, it's going to be more powerful.
Chapter V: Underrated will be released on Sept. 27 on Shanachie Records. For more information on Syleena Johnson, visit: www.thenewsj.com.
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