"I Definitely Understand the Importance of Having a Good Story:" Carl Thomas Breaks Down the Making of His R&B Classic 'Emotional'
Twenty years ago, Carl Thomas released his debut album, Emotional on Bad Boys Records. We talked to the singer about writing and creating his R&B classic.
Earlier this year, Carl Thomas appeared on Roxanne Shante’s Rock The Bells Sirius XM radio show Have A Nice Day to discuss his debut album Emotional. As Thomas sat in front of the hip-hop legend turned radio hostess, he broke down lyrics to “You Ain’t Right,” the 12th track.
The Mike City-produced song is entrenched in a hyperactive cosmopolitan-house pop beat, blended with Thomas’s slinky, soulful vocals. It’s delivered from the perspective of a man in the midst of a lover’s quarrel. On air, the singer recites the first verse of “You Ain’t Right” like a Shakespearean monologue:
“I'm working hard/50 hours a week paying for the car/And the house we had built on the boulevard/And as soon as you get home you wanna start/With something negative/Besides physical harm, what do you give/And you make lots of noise for/someone who sits/At home all day watching One Life To Live.”
A few months after that appearance, Carl Thomas is caught off guard when, during a phone conversation, I ask him why he decided to model his debut album like a soap opera. The clues had all been there: From the album’s quiet storm arc to the dramatic all-white music video of the titular track to the emotional plea of “I wish I never met her at all!” on "I Wish."
Released on April 18, 2000, Carl Thomas’s Emotional stands as a trendsetting album for new millennium R&B. By the time Emotional released, mainstream R&B was quiet on the album front. Amongst the budding male R&B stars beginning Y2K, only Jagged Edge and D’Angelo had released their own classics — J.E. Heartbreak and Voodoo, respectively. (Joe only happened to be dropping My Name Is Joeon the same day as Thomas’s Emotional. )
Adding more pressure to the album’s pending success: It was the first major R&B studio release for Bad Boy Records in the new millennium. At 27-years-old the Chicago native had all eyes on his debut statement. “I remember Puff [Daddy] kind of put a rush on the tempo of the recording of the album because he didn’t think it was moving along with the deadline that he wanted it finished,” Carl Thomas, who’d been signed to the label since 1997, said.
Emotional had to arrive in dramatic Bad Boy fashion, keeping in line with the unorthodox methods that usually helped the label have a share in the mainstream pie.
While the penchant for artists to incorporate film noir and soap opera tropes was far from novel in R&B and hip-hop music, Bad Boy had a knack for flipping that angle upside down. That could be previously traced to a primetime narrator opening The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death with a recap of Ready To Die and its aftermath.
Carl Thomas’s debut starts on a different dramatic note. Its “Intro” begins with what sounds like the hovering of THX sound effects that usually play at the beginning of film credits. “Thanks for loving me/ thanks For Caring so” sings a baritone Thomas over a progression of church organs. By the end of 49 seconds, there’s a crescendoing self-harmony that calls out “thank you lord” twice, matching the conviction of labelmates 112.
By the fourth track, “Anything (Interlude),” Thomas is vocally waltzing right into the telenovela guitars of “My Valentine.” When you get to the seventh track, “Cadillac Rap (Interlude),” the album’s macking protagonist is physically ghosted by a potential boo in a skit, while the Dramatics’ “Be My Girl” plays on a stereo.
“Let me get the hell out of here before this nigga gets back! He’s too crazy,” says the woman before making a swift exit, as Thomas steps aside to accept a phone call. It’s at the next track, "Woke Up in the Morning," where Carl Thomas finds himself singing about the lady’s disappearance, over a jazzed-out sample of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death cut “My Downfall.”
“That was an idea that Harve Pierre came up with,” Thomas said. “Harve put us together and I helped finish it. But that was pretty much his baby. His creative contribution outside of him executive producing the album. That was his contribution as a songwriter as well. Harve wrote that hook.”
If soap opera dramatics were a cornerstone of Bad Boy branded music, so was the art of sampling. “Come To Me” fused both of those worlds, speeding up the melancholic keys of Roberta Flack’s cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The 1994 classic was previously sampled on “Pain” from Puff Daddy and The Family’s 1997 album, No Way Out. (That track also featured vocals from Carl Thomas.) While Puffy happens to be reliving the traumatic experience of witnessing The Notorious B.I.G.’s assassination on “Pain,” Carl Thomas is fictionally yearning for love and exclusivity on “Come To Me”.
“A lot of those songs that I wrote for Emotional were songs that mentally collected in my head over the years,” Thomas said about his writing process. “A lot of those songs weren’t about current issues. But a selection of issues over the previous ten years or so...Bits and pieces of it [existed] in high school. When you’re a songwriter you never forget a great line. You never forget a great paragraph that you wrote. A great hook that you wrote.”
One of those high school records was “Lady Lay Your Body,” a sensual slow creeper that rivals any Nu-age quiet storm record. “I was in Brooklyn just trying to come up with some ideas for ballads with a friend of mine,” Thomas said. “And he came up with the eight-bar progression of the hook, which perfectly matched the lyrics that I had.”
“Lady Lay Your Body” would eventually find a marriage of Thomas’s enchanting vocals with laid back, cognac sipping production ahead of the trends stemming from its late '80s conception. “I want to rub your loneliness away” becomes a sensual request sung by Thomas in the hook which by song’s end turns into a borderline begging moment.
What propels Emotional to the top tier of classic R&B albums is its homage to the old school superstars. “Supastar” exhibits traditional serenading, matching the likes of quiet storm forefathers, The Isley Brothers and Smokey Robinson.
“When I’m writing ‘Supastar,’ I became the little kid who was in the mirror playing soul stars,” Thomas said. “When I was a kid I was always in the mirror imitating my favorite artists.”
Another cut that models that behavior is “Hey Now” which replicates the softer, silky vibrations of Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. In fact, one could liken Carl Thomas’s vocal delivery over the champagne-tinged production to the off-the-rift stylings of his late friend, Gerald Levert.
A peer that Thomas had the pleasure of working with during the recording of Emotional was Kelly Price. Price provides accompanying background vocals on “Giving You All My Love.” The album’s sixth track rings like an ode to the '70s duets of Peaches and Herb. “Touching you, holding you, is all I really Wanna do,” sings both artists in the hook.
Photo Credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage
The recording of the song happened around the time Puffy was pushing up the deadline for Emotional following the buzz of “I Wish."
“We’re at the Record Plant in Los Angeles recording. Kelly, me, and Mario Winans. Kelly had a bunch of stuff to do. She’s beginning the process of recording her album [Mirror Mirror],” Thomas said. “[At first] she just came by to talk about it, but when she came by she just actually went in the booth and knocked it out right then and there. We talked about everything else later. But she just went and hit it right on the spot...She made the vibe of the record for me. She gave me exactly what I was looking for.”
As a whole, Emotional toys the line of romantic wordplay and agonizing lyricism, somber melodies and uplifting instrumentation. Sonically, it’s moody like a Gemini. Those extremes exist in the seasons of “Cold, Cold World” and “Summer Rain.”
“Cold, Cold World” is driven by processional organs and a gospel choir crying “It’s a cold, cold, cold world/Living here without you in my life.” Co-written by Ron Lawrence of the Hitmen, “Cold, Cold World” takes after the begging and pleading style of old school R&B.
The lead off single for the Emotional era, “Summer Rain,” had a different breezy feel. It was produced by Heavy D and Warren Campbell, and written by DJ Rogers Jr, with an interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 cut “Summer Soft.”
“Summer Rain” almost didn’t make the final cut according to Thomas, while it existed in a pile of demo records.
“It was a song that I wasn’t going to [select] at first. But then, the more I listened to the record, I ended up calling my friend and urging him to get Heavy D to allow me to record it,” Thomas said. “It’s one of the songs that I recorded maybe a little way through the project. I recorded a lot of content for the album, and they were all good records. But that song was in the pile and a lot of people were really talking about it.”
“Summer Rain” would end up being the sleeper hit for Emotional, peaking on the charts in fall 2000. Following that chart success was the final single from the album, “Emotional,” which also sampled a music hero of his Sting. The “Shape of My Heart” melody would soon grab a hold of winter radio thanks to its sample in “Emotional.” During the final chorus of the song, Thomas is ad-libbing a heart-ripping farewell in the classic break-up song.
Answering on why “Shape of My Heart” was selected as the key sample, Thomas said:
I was just intrigued by the melodies. Sting has always been a very important artist in my career and in my life. I always felt that when he put out albums — as much as he was doing it for fans and doing it for people to enjoy what he was putting out — he was also teaching at the same time. His albums were somewhat like school — musical school — in the same fashion that I would listen to Stevie Wonder’s albums.
The hourlong, 17 track album closes with “Special Lady,” a simultaneous apology and offering of gratitude. The slick mack whose been through an Emotional rollercoaster returns back to swallow his pride:
Baby, for every time that you felt love was taken for granted/And I didn't care?/Well, these are just a few words/To let you know how I feel/Hey, yeah (Let me be the first to let you know).
By the hook, Thomas is crooning to what can be interpreted as a proposal or wedding music. The winding keyboard and harmonious violins are greeted by the album’s persistent church organs, with Thomas dramatically “calling out” by the song’s end.
Out of all the songs on Emotional, the track we spent the least amount of time on is “I Wish”. There’s no need to go in-depth on this gospel meets R&B classic that you most likely heard on the radio or at a summer cookout. The classic story of man-finds-out-woman is still in love (and dealing) with “someone else” is on full display. It’s an early climax in the fabricated soap opera world of Emotional. Through his exacerbated vocal performance Thomas yells out “And I wish I never met her at all/Even though I love her so/And she’s got love for me.” The performance is so convincing, listeners feel as though Thomas meant every word he said. “I Wish” peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B and Hip Hop singles chart a month after Emotional hit retail shelves.
“I just think it’s just a common story,” Thomas said about the song’s infectious success and longevity in the R&B archives. “It’s also a situation that people find themselves in. It’s about situationships.”
Although Thomas never heard of anyone referring to Emotional as a soap opera, and didn’t make that his debut album’s intent, his songwriting shares a commonality with what makes soap opera narratives a tried and true artistic relic: The art of storytelling.
“I definitely understand the importance of having a good story for the record. I also understand how important it is to do something that always feels authentic to people," Thomas said. "I really wanted to take that approach of vulnerability with Emotional. It’s a much more powerful impact than making people go crazy and jump up and down.”
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Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101