It all came to a head last September, a turning point that Montell was determined to explore musically, as well.
"I had always written about external situations. I was always worried about what my audience wanted to hear. For the first time I didn't go outside my own life for the narrative." Powerful songs like "Mine, Mine, Mine," and the Marvin Gaye inspired "Why Can't We," confirm that the journey somehow made the music even stronger. "The album started as a regression. I went back to my roots in south central L.A.. Back on the block. It was important for me to regroup, and see what I learned from there - to here."
Montell also parted ways with longtime collaborator Shep Crawford before R U With Me, an amiable split that had more to do with timing than any difference of musical opinion. "The sum of what I was going through almost made it a natural separation," says Montell. "We're still friends."
Montell does hook up with Rob Fusari on one of the album's stand-out tracks, the mesmerizing "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda." "People have often accused me of giving my best songs to other people," says Montell. "This time I wanted to tell a great story and deliver it with everything I learned behind it. The songs speaks to me - what has been going on in my life - and I hope to others who've been there." Montell points to the soul-baring lyrics, like : '/If I coulda' seen inside her I would have seen her broken heart/ I woulda' held on tighter and we wouldn't be falling apart/ I shoulda' said I loved her a thousand times a day/ and I wouldn't be sitting here coulda' woulda' shoulda' my whole damn life away./'
In many ways, Montell feels the raw emotion of the new disc parallels another 'turning point' in his life: His multi-million selling debut smash - 1995's This Is How We Do It. "It was pretty liberating to make a record this way. That feeling reminded me of when I made the first album. The stuff I put down was me at that time. When I first came out I was tipping forty ounces. I've grown. I've covered a lot of territory in my career. This album - in a different way, of course - is as inspired as my first."
That album, a mixture of sly beats and street-infected wordplay changed the R&B landscape. It was the first Def Jam R&B album to hit #1 on the Top Albums Chart, holding the top spot for almost two months. The runaway smash single "This Is How We do It" celebrated the South Central street vibe, becoming a precursor for the grittier, hip-hop tinged R&B that would dominate the charts by the end of the '90's. Montell followed up his debut success with 1996's gold-plus More To Tell, releasing the hit single "I Like" which was also featured on the sound track for Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor." Successful tours with superstar artists such as Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, and TLC also established Montell as a potent live artist. In 1998 he unleashed the eclectic, funk-inspired Let's Ride, which included the hit title cut. The multi-textured album reflected Montell's hearty appetite for collaboration, featuring guest shots from Master P and Redman, among others. The album also showcased Montell's gift at balladry with an ode to his daughter Sydney, the tender "Missing You." Montell also found time to produce the genre-leaping smash hit, "Nobody's Supposed To be Here," for Deborah Cox, further establishing him as a pop force to be reckoned with.
Montell also began to stretch his wings globally, with visits to Ireland (where he collaborated with Hothouse Flowers, among others), to Cuba, as part of a music exchange program called "Music Bridges," as well as a week long stint in Africa. These life changing experiences contributed in large part to the charged offerings on Montell's fourth album, 1999's Get It On…Tonite. The album's timelessness reflected a maturing Montell, but also delivered the heat, as on searing cuts like "Get Enough," and "What It Feels Like."
"I've come a long way," says Montell. "But I know in this game it's always 'what's next?' I'm a music fan too. I'm out every Tuesday buying up the latest albums. I want my music to have an impact. I think with a lot of R&B artists, people tend to think the music is all physical - that an R&B artist might not have a lot to say. But I've paid my dues. I know how to dig deep. Anybody who tries this album and comes away not understanding who I am - they just aren't listening."
A superstar at the crossroads is the stuff legends are made of. For Montell - who moved to Atlanta a little more than a year ago - he wouldn't have it any other way. He points to the title cut, "R U With Me," and the last cut on the album, the gospel tinged "The You In Me," which he did with friend and Pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, as maybe his most revealing efforts. "The last song sums up the entire album for me. You can't run from yourself or God. Every album I think: 'How can I step up in front of these people again.' These songs explain who I am, where I'm at. The Montell Jordan I see in the mirror now is doing all right."