A Soul Baby Grows Up

Syleena Johnson grew up singing. She’s the daughter of great Chicago soul-blues vocalist Syl Johnson–who, along with Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Otis Clay, recorded for the legendary Memphis label Hi Records in the 60s and 70s–as well as the niece of blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson and bassist Mac Thompson. By the time she agreed to a deal with the R & B behemoth Jive in February 1998, she’d already recorded a couple albums on her own. But she was still plenty naive. “When I was signed I didn’t know anything about the business,” says Johnson, now 24. “I thought my album would be out three months later. I had all of the songs, we just had to put some tracks to them. But I didn’t even start recording until six months later.”

Last month Johnson’s major-label debut, Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness, finally hit the shelves. The young singer learned a thing or two in the intervening years, including how easily the minutiae of marketing can take priority over the music: the record was originally slated to come out in July 2000 but was delayed repeatedly as the label vacillated on what song to release first. Though she no longer harbors illusions of instant fame, Johnson does have good reason to be optimistic: the single, “I Am Your Woman,” written for her by R. Kelly, is in Billboard’s top 50, the album debuted at number one on the magazine’s Heatseekers chart (which lists the best-selling titles by artists who have never appeared in the top half of the Billboard 200), and she’ll be opening for Kelly on his upcoming U.S. and European tours.

But the most valuable lessons she learned were personal: Chapter 1 is a song cycle that chronicles a bad relationship in vivid detail, and though not all the lyrics are strictly autobiographical, “everything in the songs happened,” Johnson says. (Even the answering-machine messages used in the narrative interludes are real–Jive paid Johnson’s ex $500 for the rights.) Throughout her own relationship, she meticulously kept track of her experiences and feelings in a journal, and when she felt her worst, she’d throw herself into the songs. “The journal was like therapy and the album was like a conversation,” she says. “I’m happy when I look at them now because I’m not there anymore. Now I understand why that was going on with me, but I didn’t know it then.”

For most of Johnson’s life, her father protectively discouraged any aspirations she had toward a career in the business. “He’d joke with me, ‘You can’t sing, shut up.’ He didn’t want his baby girl to be in the industry because he thought it was full of snakes.” But by the time he recorded his 1994 comeback album, Back in the Game, for Delmark, he’d changed his tune, allowing Syleena to cowrite and sing on the gospel-drenched “Dipped in the Water.” As a freshman at Drake University in Iowa that same year, she declared a psych major, but before her first semester was up she’d entered and won a school talent show.

“That’s when I decided I was wasting my time,” says Johnson. She stayed in school, but changed her major to music performance, and Syl helped her record some of her own songs. In 1996 she transferred to Illinois State University in Normal, where she met the inspiration for Chapter 1 the following March. She hoped to cram 18 course hours into each semester and finish early. But in September 1997 she celebrated her 21st birthday by attending a charity basketball event hosted by R. Kelly at the United Center, and at a party afterward at Shelter, she met an assistant to Jive A and R scout Wayne Williams. She schmoozed him unabashedly, he told her how to get in touch with Williams, and not long after that she sent off a demo tape. (Those songs ended up as Johnson’s 2000 album, Love Hangover, produced by her dad and released on his Twinight label.) Williams called her back three days later, but it took about four months to finalize the deal.

She dropped out of school in early 1998 to work on the Jive album, though recording didn’t begin until June. But after she moved back in with her mother, Brenda Thompson (her parents split when she was 15), she discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and by December they’d finally broken up. She returned to ISU for the spring semester in 1999, and met Marcus Betts, a member of the basketball team who’s now her husband, there in April. By that point the album was theoretically finished, but the process of picking a debut single had just begun.

Several possibilities had already been selected when Williams played the album for Kelly last year. But when Kelly volunteered to contribute a song, it became the final piece of the puzzle. After yet more recording and tweaking, the album was released on May 15. It reveals Johnson to be an old soul when it comes to soul: her authoritative, sanctified wail harks back to 70s divas like Chaka Khan and Betty Wright, placing her slightly more on the commercial side of the spectrum than new “natural soul” singers like Angie Stone and Jill Scott. Although she’ll be accompanied only by prerecorded tracks on the American R. Kelly tour, she hopes to put together a live band later in the year.

Now that she’s found happiness she insists that her next record won’t be filled with silly love songs. “Marriage is not easy,” she says. “We’re not unhappy, but we have to work out a lot of stuff. It’s hard for him because I’m on the road a lot. So far the album is all about struggles–the relationship, the business.” And anyway, she’s not quite a household name yet: A few weeks before the album was released she walked into a record store in Bloomington and asked if they had the new album by Syleena Johnson. When the clerk told her it wasn’t out yet and that they might not be stocking it, she pulled out a copy of the latest Vibe and showed him the glowing review therein. He failed to recognize her from the picture. “Eventually I held the magazine up to my face,” she says with a laugh. “It’s sick that I do this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.