ON HER OWN TERMS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She's 30 minutes late. But at least she had the decency to tell her husband to call you on your cell phone. Cynthia Loving, or Lil' Mo as she's known to urban audiences, is stuck in traffic. "Sorry, man," her husband says through the fuzzy reception. "We'll be there shortly. Just running behind."

As you wait outside Baltimore's ESPN Zone restaurant under a suede-gray sky, you watch couples stroll around the harbor. You watch kids spit in the water.

You're thinking deeply about what you need to pick up at Wal-Mart when a slim, brown-skinned man taps your arm and startles you.

"Hey, uh, you're here to interview Lil' Mo?" It's her husband/road manager, Al Stone, and he's dressed like any hip hip-loving homeboy from around the block in a baggy 76ers sweat suit and white "do-rag," or skull cap. He's holding the couple's sleeping beauty, 11-month-old Heaven.

Lil' Mo, 25, stands behind him - mirrorlike shades covering what you later discover to be friendly, doe eyes. Looking like your average "shortie," the singer-songwriter sports a powder-blue velour pant set, a white Kangol and flippy, Farrah Fawcett-inspired tresses. She's 4 feet 11 and trim. She smiles warmly, shakes your hand and introduces you to her younger brother, James - a rake-thin teen-ager swimming in his jeans.

You all enter the restaurant and settle into a quiet booth. In no time, you feel like you're hanging with cool cousins. As Heaven sleeps, James, the budding comedian, cracks racy jokes. Al is mostly quiet but laughs often at his brother-in-law's silliness as his wife, one of R&B;'s most interesting and hard-working vocalists, talks to you about balancing career and motherhood.

The Owings Mills-based performer also talks about coming back - wiser, stronger and more focused - after a man came out of nowhere one night two years ago and attacked her. The assault, you learn later, was just the jolt Mo needed to shine on her own.

For the past five years, Lil' Mo - who will make an appearance Monday at the Coca-Cola Presents Summerscope Tour at Baltimore's Western High School to lecture about her career - has been riding urban airwaves with her impassioned, church-raised vocals. Her latest album is Meet the Girl Next Door, and it's a more flavorful extension of her debut, 2001's Based on a True Story.

Although she hasn't really caught on with mainstream folks yet, Mo has amassed a legion of hip-hop and urban fans. Which makes sense. Although her music is melodic, there's nothing really pop-ish about her songs. Like early Mary J. Blige records, Mo's productions - the beats, the layered synths - throb with raw, straight-out-the-'hood attitude. But her vocals, unlike Blige's, convey a wide-eyed sweetness. She's like the smart, fashionably adventurous friend from high school the teachers liked. Lil' Mo, as the title of her new album suggests, is the girl next door.

Her biggest hit, "Superwoman Pt. 2," was a monster jam three summers ago. With its stuttering beat and thick, looping bass line, the single launched Fabolous, the platinum-selling Brooklyn rapper. And it was a mainstay in the clubs, eventually cracking the Top 10 on the urban charts. Mo's latest single, "4Ever," radiates the same street-but-sweet vibe and has been a radio staple for most of the summer. In the lyrics, Mo pines for a real love, a grown-folks-working-it-out kind of love. She sings, I'm ready to settle down/I'm ready to buy a house/And I'm ready to change my last name ...

"I was real focused with this album," she says, nestled in the dimly lighted booth. "I did it in my eighth month of pregnancy, and everything that was on my mind I was writing about. That was, like, a real happy time in my life, and I think that reflects in the album."

Her speaking voice is velvety, a little sultry - a tone you rarely hear on Mo's CDs as she belts in her appealing upper register. In conversation, she spits out her thoughts rapidly. You wonder how long she can flow like this before she has to take a breath. "So it's, like, I just wanted to get it done. I just wanted to finish the album, 'cause there are a lot of artists out there who don't ever make their deadline. They go over the deadline when it comes to getting the album to the record company. I beat the deadline by a long shot. So it's, like, you gotta get the best product out there in a feasible amount of time. It's hard nowadays to get a single out. People forget you."

If she sounds more like a market-conscious business person than a sensitive artist, you have to understand that Mo is serious about showing folks what she can do. She will tell you quickly that she's not merely an entertainer - a cutie who sings and shakes her thing across a stage.

Nobody's puppet

The Long Island-raised performer, who moved in 1997 to the Baltimore area, aggressively controls the reins of her swiftly moving career. Taking cues from her friend and mentor, producer-singer-songwriter-rapper-label-executive-video visionary Missy Elliott, Mo wrote or co-wrote all but one of the 16 tracks on Meet the Girl Next Door, which she also executive-produced. She doesn't want to become a "puppet," as she calls it - a female artist who's controlled by her label and other industry people. The woman wants to dictate what she sings, what she wears, where she performs. Lil' Mo runs Lil' Mo.

She says, "That's the whole part of being the executive producer, see. You gotta go in with a plan and make it happen in the right amount of time - not just going in, doing a whole slab of songs and none of them makes the album. Like, I learned my lesson from my first album - how we recorded for years, and the album finally came out. It wasn't bad, but I just felt like I could've been more into it. That's why I stepped to Elektra (her label). Like, 'Yo, I wanna be direct.' Going through people, going through producers, you never really get your point across. I'm a businesswoman. See, when you're more hands-on, you get more longevity in this business. That's a whole 'nother level."

In 1998, Lil' Mo (she made up the name because it was easy to remember) signed with Elektra Records. She had been a regular in talent-show competitions around Manhattan. She sang in a play called Family Affair and did background vocals for gospel star John P. Kee.

"I actually thought she was going to do gospel," says Jacob Loving, Mo's dad. A few days after you meet the singer at ESPN Zone, Loving calls you on his cell phone to chat about his "baby girl." He's retired from the military and, for the last 12 years, has been the full-time pastor of One Accord Apostolic Church in Glen Burnie. In the early '90s, he moved his family - minus Lil' Mo - from Long Island to the Baltimore area.

"I have nothing against the music Mo does," Loving says. "She's anointed and she talks about real stuff in her music. It wasn't a surprise at all that she pursued singing as a career. She has always taken the initiative when it comes to doing what she wants to do. She's slept in studios for days working on songs. But that's the life of entertainers, I guess."

A marketing mystery

Landing a major-label contract was one thing, getting Mo's first album out was another. Elektra didn't quite know what to do with its new artist. Her personal style was what some may call "ghetto fabulous": the multiple tattoos, the waist-long rainbow braids, the brazen low-cut outfits. But her vocal approach, whose texture recalls that of Coko of the hit '90s group SWV, blazed with gospel-sparked inflections. Championed by label powerhouse Sylvia Rhone, Mo stood her ground and maintained her inspired sound and her Cindy Lauper-meets-Mary J. Blige image.

In the meantime, she befriended labelmate Missy Elliott, who produced Mo's first radio hit, "5 Minutes," which appeared on the 1998 Why Do Fools Fall in Love soundtrack.

Three years would pass before Mo scorched the airwaves again with "Superwoman Pt. 2." Riding on its fast success, Mo was poised to drop her long-awaited debut. There was a list of promotional dates to do. But on a night three Junes ago, as she was leaving a performance at the Warfield in San Francisco, Mo's personal and professional life was forever altered.

She was about to get into her limo behind the venue when a man dressed in black ran up to her and bashed her over the head with a champagne bottle.

"I was about 5 feet away from her when it happened," says Mo's husband. "It all happened so fast, you know. My first instinct was to go running after the dude. And that's what I did. But he was too fast and got away. To this day, we still don't know who it was or why it happened."

Sitting in the restaurant eating fettuccine Alfredo, Mo is calm as she talks about the attack, which left her with 20 stitches and permanent scars along her hairline. She no longer sports her beloved rainbow-colored cornrows. The physical scars have healed over the last two years. The emotional ones, however, are still tender.

"I was scared to leave the house," she says matter-of-factly. "I was sitting up - face all swollen. I was like, 'What did I do? Why this happen to me?' But, yo, it happened. It was just a wake-up call. Before, I didn't have any security. I would just go anywhere - to the mall, wherever. Now, I travel with security. And now I'm more aware of who's around me and where I go."

She sips her punch. "I realize now that not everybody out here likes me. You're gonna always have haters and that's sad. Sometimes, you know, you just gotta go through something to get to the good. I mean, I could've been paralyzed, my face all messed up, dead. But I'm all right. That's my testimony."

For two years following the incident, Mo stayed away from the spotlight. The album Based on a True Story came out as scheduled but Mo was unable to promote it. She settled into her home with her husband of two years, wrote songs and, along with her husband, reorganized her management. Stone, 27, is a real-estate developer when he's not handling his wife's travel arrangements and performance contracts.

Before giving birth to Heaven on Aug. 19, 2002, Mo had worked as a radio personality at urban station X105.7 (WXYV-FM). "The Lil' Mo Show" ran for four hours each weekday until her farewell show on June 14 of last year.

"I was ready to go back into the studio and make some music," Mo says. "I said, 'It's time to do this.' I missed it. And my fans missed me."

Late again

Again, she's 30 minutes late.

A week after you have dinner with Mo and her family, you're at Columbia Mall inside Downtown Locker Room, a hip-hop-friendly apparel shop that's holding a CD signing for the artist. An even mix of blacks and whites, the line of about 75 preteens snakes outside the store. The word from Downtown's management is that Lil' Mo is - of course - stuck in traffic. DJ Quick Silva, who accompanies Mo on tour, is not much taller than his boss. Behind two turntables and two wake-the-dead loud speakers, he spins cuts from Meet the Girl Next Door.

Silva grabs the mike: "Don't forget to get the new CD, Meet the Girl Next Door, on sale now for $13.99, yo. It's hot. Y'all feelin' that?" he asks the kids in the store's entrance. And they scream over the booming bass.

Finally, Mo enters from the rear of the store, flanked by an ever-present, stone-faced security guard. She's wearing purple iridescent shades, silver triangle-shaped earrings, a black Kangol, low-riding jeans and a Kelly green mesh shirt under a black mesh jacket. The screams ripple through the store. Her full glossy lips stretch into a girlish smile as she waves to her fans and sits behind a table stacked with promotional posters and CDs. Label executives buzz around her as she greets fans, poses for pictures and signs CDs. Holding creamy-skinned Heaven, Stone stands at the back of the store looking on.

Although Mo's lyrical themes explore the ups and downs and ins and outs of being a grown black woman, her music appeals mostly to prepubescent girls, who may dream of settling down and buying a house with a man one day. But it's certainly not in the plans now. In fact, some of them don't pay much attention to the lyrics, anyway.

"I like her voice. She can really sing and she's really nice," says 11-year-old Asia Parker of Columbia. She holds Mo's CD, which the singer has just signed. Her friend, Najae Collier, also 11, stands next to Parker, her eyes fixed on Mo.

"I like her voice, too," Collier says. "I like the way she dresses. She's, like, a good role model."

Camp

Who: Lil' Mo, New York Knicks' player Allan Houston and rapper Young Steff

What: 2003 Coca-Cola Presents Summerscope, an entertainment and sports camp that gives teens an opportunity to interact with entertainment and sports figures.

When: 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday--Friday. Lil' Mo, Allan Houston and Young Steff will appear on Monday only.

Where: Western High School, 4600 Falls Road

Tickets: Free

Call: 888-579-5229 or log on to www.summerscopeonline.com

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