Donell Jones: Direct Connection

The R&B Underrated Artist of the Millennium goes to... Donell Jones.

If such an award were to exist, Donell Jones would be its most deserving recipient. A writer, producer and critically acclaimed solo artist, Jones got his start after penning hits for the likes of Usher and 702. His 1996 debut solo album My Heart set him off right with the remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, but it was his 1999 Platinum sophomore effort, Where I Wanna Be, that continues to remain a classic R&B record in many people’s eyes. The album included the memorable smash singles “U Know What’s Up” which featured TLC’s Left Eye, “Shorty (Got Her Eyes On Me)” and the smooth title track “Where I Wanna Be”.

After all the acclaim, it was expected 2002’s Life Goes On would essentially elevate Jones’ career to the next level of mainstream success. Sadly, it did not match up, and actually sold less than half of its predecessor. So the question begs to be asked: what’s going wrong here? Is it Jones? Is it the label? Or is it something we just don’t know about? Alternatives got Donell Jones on the phone from his hometown in Atlanta to answer some lingering questions about his musical career. His new album Journey of a Gemini is about to hit stores, and we were eager to find out if this is finally the follow-up we’ve been waiting for.

AHHA: Didn’t you just get back from Australia? How was that?

Donell Jones: I love Australia man! I went to Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. The crowd response was incredible. It reminded me a little bit of London.

AHHA: What are you up to now?

Donell: Well I’m about to start a promotional tour around the States. Hit up some of these radio stations and clubs, and make sure they know that I’ve got another album out and I’m on my way back.

AHHA: What exactly do you mean when you say you’re on way back? Your albums seem to have a three year gaps anyway.

Donell: Right, so technically it’s on schedule then! [Laughs] I think people just assume that I’ve been gone such a long time.

AHHA: So why does it take such a long time? Are you busy writing for other people?

Donell: No, it’s not that. Trust me I would love to put out an album every year but for me it makes more sense to wait. If I see that Jive has another artist coming out [I’ll wait]. I used to be on Arista. Arista had so many great artists, and I just never wanted to put myself in a situation where I didn’t get heard, or [where] people didn’t get a chance to listen to my music because the label were promoting someone else. So I really like to wait my turn, make sure that it’s a great album, and also that the powers that be can really focus on it.

AHHA: Is that what happened with the new album?

Donell: This particular album took a long time because of label differences, not with Jive, but just the whole Arista situation - shutting down as a company and then having to move to a different label. Not every artist knew what was going to happen to their career because everything was up in the air.

One thing about Babyface and L.A Reid is when they signed me to a contract, they gave me total creative freedom. At that time, Babyface was the most incredible writer in the world. What I appreciate about them is that they didn’t say, ‘Yo let Babyface do your whole album’. They were confident in the fact that I could do my own project. And that is what I love the most. For a new artist, they let me do everything that I wanted to do, and certain labels don’t let you do that. So I definitely have to say big up to Babyface and L.A Reid.

AHHA: You said that if someone looked up ‘underrated’ in the dictionary, your name would be there. Why do you think you haven’t gotten your props?

Donell: To be honest with you, I don’t feel like I’ve been properly put out there for fans to really get a chance to find out who I am. I think when you hear the song on the radio or something like that, you immediately know the song, but you just don’t know who I am. That is something we need to fix this time around. There has never been a big media campaign, and that’s what we need to do. We need to connect the music with the person. This time people are going to say, ‘I’m proud of him’. This time I’m going to go everywhere.

AHHA: Do you think internationally it’s a lot different? Do you feel they recognize your talent much more that the U.S?

Donell: Yes! Honestly I think overseas they know who I am because...well, it’s really weird for me. It’s different overseas. They really, really appreciate the music. They get into the artist that they like, find out about them, they do research, you know? Over here its more of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We really don’t care; we just let the next thing come along…

AHHA: What do you think of R&B at the moment - and the rise of Hip-Hop, taking over the market and all?

Donell: I don’t have a problem with Hip-Hop, I love Hip-Hop. I don’t think R&B is at a bad state, I just think that people need to put out quality music. There came a time where albums were pretty bad, you know? I don’t know what a person’s work ethic is these days. I know that when I go and make an album, I want to put everything I got into it. I want to make sure it’s something I can listen to from beginning to end. And that’s the way I approach every album I put out. I want to make every song better than the next.

AHHA: Is there anyone out there right now that you wouldn’t mind writing for?

Donell: I can tell you right now, in the last couple of days I’ve had the chance to listen to a lot of albums. Oh man, you know who I think has an incredible album? I think Lil Kim has an incredible album. I don’t know if people have heard it, but Babyface’s new album is incredible also. You got to hear it; it’s his best work so far. And Mr. Stevie Wonder’s album, I love that too.

AHHA: Do you know how loyal your fans are? They seem to know every word of every song.

Donell: Yeah! You know what bothers me the most? When I’m doing shows, sometimes I feel kind of bad because I’m only singing six or seven songs, and these people are so mad at me because they want to hear the rest of them. Well, I can only be on stage for so long man! Yeah, I feel like these people really love my music.

AHHA: Out of all your albums, which one has been most memorable in making?

Donell: I have to say Where I Wanna Be. Making that album, my second album, is the way I feel right now. My first album came out; it was a success for a brand new artist but it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I felt I could do better. When they gave me a second shot, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to write every song like it’s my last record’. I put my heart, soul, everything into that record. And that’s how people received it. And then my third album, Life Goes On, was released and it did well, sold 600,000 units, but I know I could do better than that.

AHHA: What would you like the fans to know about your new album, and what would this album have to do to make you happy?

Donell: I just want my fans to know they can definitely put this album in the ‘classic’ category. My goal for this album is, well, I would love to hit five million albums for this record. It’s a big goal but I know I can reach it. I just have to let the people know that it’s out there. I think the single that I have out right now with Jermaine Dupri is a great start. It shows my association with another artist, which I don’t do much of. I think my next single will take it to the next level, because it’s a beautiful record, and I think it’s what the people have been waiting for. I think it brings music back. People will say,‘Wow, this is R&B - this is the way I used to listen to my music.’