Updated July 21, 2006Donell Jones must have some seriously loyal fans.
How else do you explain the fact that without a video to support it and without a lot of fanfare, his latest album, Journey of a Gemini, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart. What's even more remarkable is that it was the first of his four albums ever to do so, and it was his first album since 2002.
But if you expect Jones to play the confident role and say he knew it would happen all along, think again.
"I was very surprised," he said of the high chart debut. "I didn't have a lot of label support, didn't have a video. In the end, my true fans came out."
Personal & Professional StrugglesThe No. 1 debut must have been like music to the ears of the smooth singer-songwriter, who just a couple of years ago was worried about the direction of his career and personal life. At the time, he and the label he was signed to, LaFace, were caught up in corporate restructuring, and Jones felt he was in danger of getting squeezed out. Although he recorded literally dozens of songs for a new album, he said, the release was put on hold.
In addition, while his album was in limbo, he had to endure the stress of ending a longtime romantic relationship. These pressures and others led to Jones beginning to drink more. And more. And more. So much so in fact, that he landed in alcohol rehab. It's an issue that many artists would skirt when talking to the media, but Jones tackles it head-on.
The Drinking Problem"It hasn't been hard for me to talk about," he said of his drinking problem. "I was at a point in my life where everything was going bad. It got to the point where I would drink until I couldn't stand. And I was drinking more and more alone. I didn't want to write anymore. I had a lot of things on my shoulders."
Jones said that the intervention of family and friends let to him seeking help and that he now has his drinking under control. At the time of this interview, he said he'd last had a drink about two weeks prior.
"My limit is two (drinks) and that's it. After that I'm good," he said.
He's also not in serious romantic relationship right now. "I'm single," he said. "I'm just trying to focus on my career."
'Journey of a Gemini'For many artists, drama and turmoil spark creativity. And Jones is apparently no exception, as Journey of a Gemini is one of the better R&B releases of the year. Such songs as "Portrait of a Woman," "Special Girl" and "My Apology" are well-written, well-sung and well-produced.
Well-produced songs are nothing new for a Donell Jones album, but the difference this time around is that he utilized a variety of R&B producers instead of handling the majority of the production duties himself, as he did on his first three albums. Why?
"I had already cut 30 or 40 songs," he revealed. "What they (his label) wanted to do was incorporate some outside producers."
So what did he learn from collaborating with other producers, such as Jermaine Dupri, Ryan Leslie, the Underdogs and Tim & Bob?
"I'd say we learned from each other," he said. "From Tim & Bob, I learned how to produce an uptempo song. And Ryan Leslie is the first guy I've ever seen create a track without a drum machine. He's a genius."
Mature ThemesJourney of a Gemini separates itself from most modern R&B in that its songs have strong themes that appeal to adults. Songs like the apologetic "I'm Gonna Be" (Stream it here in Windows Media and here in RealMedia), and the confrontational "Better Start Talking" (Hear the song here in Windows Media and here in RealMedia) , are great examples of great songwriting. In fact, Jones is known as one of the best songwriters in the business.
One of the more poignant songs on the new album is "Cry," in which Jones sings about some of the harsh realities of inner-city life. Among the lyrics:
"Momma's trickin' to feed the baby yo/Cause daddy took the money and put it up his nose/He hits the hustler up for some credit yo/But never took the time to go buy some baby clothes."
"Growing up in Chicago, I've seen a lot of things," said Jones, who relocated to Atlanta about three years ago. "A lot of people are not paying attention to their kids. I wanted to put some awareness out there."
Socially Conscious SongsSuch socially conscious R&B songs were pretty common in the 1960s and '70s, but are pretty rare in today's world of commercial R&B. So what does Jones, who's something of an anomaly in today's world of R&B and Soul music think of today's popular R&B?
"It's getting better," he said tactfully. "But I feel like an album should have more than just two (good) songs on it. There should be more songs about love, life and relationships. That's what I try to incorporate into my music."
So after going through one of the most difficult times of his life, Donell Jones survived and made it through the fire a better person.
"It's definitely changed me a lot," he said of the difficulties he went through. "I learned a lot of things. I learned how to be a man."