Carl Thomas’ Debut Album ‘Emotional’ Turns 20: A Retrospective
A look back on the makings of the R&B classic with commentary from Carl Thomas, Mario Winans, Gordon Chambers, Ron Lawrence and Sharissa Dawes.
Before Carl Thomas signed to Bad Boy Records in 1997, he spent time developing himself as a singer-songwriter.
He migrated from Chicago to New York City, where he worked under producer/songwriter Troy Taylor’s wings to create songs from start to finish.
“Troy and I have known each other since we were teenagers,” Thomas tells Rated R&B over the phone. “Troy has always been a mentor. I don’t know anybody else who can get the absolute most out of a vocalist more than Troy can.”
Thomas gives credit to Taylor for helping him hone his craft at the time. “He is the person that made me interested in all of it — not just the music, but the process behind it all. He made me understand things that I needed to know if music was going to be my choice of career.”
While in New York, Thomas made frequent appearances at open-mic nights, which is how he got discovered by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. He would become the first solo male R&B act to sign to the label.
Upon joining the Bad Boy roster, Thomas appeared as a featured guest on notable songs, including the official remix to Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G. and Mase’s hit “Been Around the World.” The anthemic tune peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It was only a matter of time before Thomas became a priority at the label and started working on his debut album, Emotional.
Thomas’ songwriting allowed him the opportunity to be hands-on with the writing process, which was rare for freshmen acts at the time. All the work he did with Taylor helped prepare him to stay afloat in a fast-paced environment.
“We had a process where we had to do so many songs per day — and they had to be full songs. They had to all have a bridge. They all had to have their respective parts to them,” Thomas recalls when working with Taylor before signing to Bad Boy.
“By the time I got to Bad Boy, just working at the pace that Puff was normally working at, was comfortable for me already,” he states. “I fit right into that rhythm with just getting a bunch of content done in a short amount of time.”
There were many songs recorded for Thomas’ debut effort but only 17 tracks made the final cut — the majority of which Thomas helped write.
“I was living in Atlanta and I had created this piece in my home,” Winans recalls about the heartfelt tune [emotional], which samples Sting’s 1993 hit “Shape of My Heart.”
After leading with two singles “Summer Rain” and “I Wish,” Thomas released Emotional on April 18, 2000.
The soul-stirring album, which was released the same day as Joe’s My Name Is Joe, proved to be a success for the burgeoning R&B star. It debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 with more than 115,000 copies sold in its first week of sales. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America later in the year.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Emotional, Rated R&B spoke with Carl Thomas and a few other collaborators about the makings of the R&B classic.
Producer: Mario Winans
Writers: Carl Thomas, Kenneth Hickson, Mario Winans, Sting
“Emotional” was the first song Thomas and Mario Winans (who was part of Bad Boy’s Hitmen collective) recorded together for the album, along with Kenny Hickson.
Thomas reveals, “The track itself was something that Mario had on another project but I asked him if I could have the track and he was just like, “Yeah whatever!” He was just willing to do whatever it took to get the best result.”
“I was living in Atlanta and I had created this piece in my home,” Winans recalls about the heartfelt tune, which samples Sting’s 1993 hit “Shape of My Heart.” “I’m a big fan of Sting. Ten Summoner’s Tales has been one of my favorite albums for years and that song ‘Shape of My Heart’ was one of my favorite songs off that album, so I just created this piece.”
It didn’t take long to complete the song. Winans recounts starting with the bridge and the hook before Thomas and Hickson dressed it up with the verses.
“We went in with the empty track and we just literally started constructing that song,” Thomas says about the songwriting process. “I’d say the whole thing was written in about 30 minutes. We recorded a demo of it right after we wrote it. I came back the next day and I did the final vocals on it.”
Thomas admits he was a little nervous about how his vocal performance would turn out.
“I didn’t know how that was going to play out because I had a cold that day,” Thomas mentions, as he lets out a chuckle. “I went in there and it was the best vocal performance I ever gave while I was sick (laughs).”
Winans agrees with Thomas’ stellar performance. “When Carl went in that vocal booth and he sang that song, it was just something incredible — something I had never heard before,” he says. “It gave me chills. When he came back the second day, the way he sang that song was exactly what you hear on the record. We didn’t have to change anything. He went in there and he just put his heart and soul into the record. He blew us away.”
Producer: Mike City
Writers: Carl Thomas, Mike City
“‘I Wish’ was one of the last records that I recorded for the project,” Thomas notes. “It was done by Mike City and when he brought it to me, it was a great idea. We just went into the studio and completed that great idea.”
Thomas explained that recording “I Wish” was a special moment for him. “It was the only record that I did that I recorded at Electric Lady Studios, which is a studio that has always meant a whole lot to me. It was Jimmy Hendrix’s studio in the village.”
The Mike City-produced track hears a broken-hearted Thomas regretting a past relationship, based on true events. “‘I Wish’ was the culmination of me complaining about certain situations that went wrong in my relationships when I was younger,” Thomas confesses. “I was involved in a lot of dumb situations.”
Dubbed as Thomas’ signature track, “I Wish” achieved top 40 success, peaking at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also topped the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart.
The impact of “I Wish” would later inspire rapper Jay Z to reference a line from the song — I wish I never met her at all — in his 2000 single “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” produced by The Neptunes.
“It was cool. He got in touch with me before it came out,” Thomas says when asked how he felt about Jay-Z’s interpolation. “I thought it was a compliment about how he felt about that project. Jay-Z was definitely one of the biggest supporters of Emotional. There wasn’t one time that we didn’t see each other that he didn’t tell me that it was a wonderful foundation for an R&B career.”
Producer: Heavy D.
Writers: D.J. Rogers, Heavy D., Stevie Wonder
Can you imagine not hearing “Summer Rain” on Emotional? Well, the song almost didn’t make the cut.
“It was actually a record that Puff gave to me a while back. I just didn’t pay that much attention to it,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have the record because I took so long getting back to Heavy D. and them about the record. I had recorded so many songs for the album that ‘Summer Rain’ was one of the songs that almost didn’t make the album.”
Thomas gives credit to his mother for “telling me how much she loved it,” which inspired him to keep it.
“Summer Rain” samples Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic “Summer Soft” from his iconic album, Songs in the Key of Life. Thomas vividly remembers the time he had to get permission directly from Wonder to use the song.
“[Stevie] approves all his samples personally,” he states. “It was one of the most testing and nerve-racking periods of my career. I’m not going to say I got big-headed after that but I will say that it was confirmation for me that I was definitely ready to go out there to the world with this album and just see how people received it.”
“Giving You All My Love”
Producer: Mario Winans
Writers: Carl Thomas, Kelly Price, Mario Winans, Isaac Hayes
Among the album’s most treasured deep cuts is “Giving You All My Love,” which heavily sampled Isaac Hayes’ 1980 song “Wherever You Are.”
Sharing his story behind creating “Giving You All My Love,” Winans says, “I would just sit in the studio and I started going through some samples. I came across this Isaac Hayes record and chopped it up. Once we got it together, it just had such an amazing feeling to it. We started immediately working on the melodies. It was me, Carl, Kelly Price and Puffy in the room working at The Record Plant in LA. That song is one of my favorites on the album.”
Kelly Price, who had released her debut album (Soul of a Woman) in 1998, lent her anointed voice to the feel-good tune.“ Kelly just happened to be in town, she came by the studio and did the background vocals with me,” Thomas says. “She did some lead vocals as well but they just didn’t make the final cut of the project. I remember her being super busy at the time that we asked her to come to the studio but for her to just make my album a part of her schedule, that was just really dope.”
“Cold, Cold World”
Producers: Mark Batson, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence
Writers: Carl Thomas, Mark Batson, Ron Lawrence
As soon as Thomas heard the instrumental, he knew that he wanted to write to it. Ron Lawrence, a member of The Hitmen, remembers when he first played the track for Thomas at his apartment in Brooklyn.
“I sat in the living room and played some tracks,” Lawrence tells Rated R&B. “When [Carl] heard the first chords of ‘Cold, Cold World,’ he said, “This is the one I want right here.”
“It was amazing to see that within a few seconds he automatically knew he wanted the track without having to listen to the whole thing,” adds Lawrence. “He had a melody in his mind, so when he heard it he knew it would fit the format of what he was doing.”
If anyone questioned Thomas’ vocal abilities, it’s “Cold, Cold World” that will silence any naysayer as he takes them to church. Thomas says the soulful tune was inspired by ‘60s R&B music.
“There was a lot of Motown influence that I wrote that record with,” Thomas explains. “Me being able to observe quartet singers in church growing up, there’s a lot of that element in ‘Cold, Cold World.’ In writing that song, I just kind of put it to myself, ‘Well okay, how would The Manhattans handle a record like this or how would Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes handle a record like this?’ That was just my approach.”
R&B singer Sharissa Dawes was enlisted to do background vocals for “Cold, Cold World.”
“I remember getting a call from Harve Pierre. He was my A&R when I was over at RCA in a girl group,” Dawes tells Rated R&B. “I met him and Gordon Chambers and recorded the hook. I was just excited. It was a feel-good song. There was no denying that. I just loved it.”
Behind every great song is an untold story. Thomas wasn’t the only artist who fell in love with the “Cold, Cold World” track. In the music industry, it’s common for producers to send records to multiple artists to work on for potential use. In this case, it was no different.
“It got into the hands of Jimmy Cozier, who was an up and coming songwriter, who had written to the track around the same time Carl had written to it,” Lawrence reveals. “But Carl had recorded it and the song was done. In this instance, Jimmy’s manager heard his version of the song, fell in love with it and gave it to Clive Davis. It was a conflict of interest because the song was already given to Carl Thomas but [Jimmy’s] management team was so pressed because Clive Davis liked the song — to the point where it put a deal on the table for Jimmy.”
Lawrence admits, “It caused massive friction between both artists, [Bad Boy] and the newly founded J Records. It became very stressful. I was getting pulled in both directions and had to figure out how I was going to maneuver that situation. The Carl record had already come out. But, since it was Clive Davis, I guess they overrode that rule contractually because it came out again on [“No More Playing Games” from Jimmy Cozier’s debut album].”
According to an MTV News article published in September 2000, Thomas was planning to issue “Cold, Cold World” as the fourth single from Emotional; however, it never happened.
Producers: Gordon Chambers, Karl “K-Gee” Gordon
Writers: Gordon Chambers and Karl “K-Gee” Gordon
“My Valentine” is one of few songs on the album that Thomas didn’t write. His longtime friend Gordon Chambers, along with Karl Gordon, was the mastermind behind this infectious groove.
The song was written and recorded in London. “I was going back and forth to London and doing a lot of writing there,” Chambers tells Rated R&B. “Something about being in Europe liberated me and made me feel free and poetic.”
Chambers approached the record with an open mind. “I said let me try not to write anything pop. Let me try not to write anything R&B-esque. Let me just write what I feel,” Chambers says. “I remember it was raining a lot in London, as it often does, and those are the feelings and the words that came to me. We worked on that song for three days.” Chambers admits he didn’t think much of the song, describing it as “artsy.”
When Chambers sent the song to his publishing company, it was erroneously added to a demo tape that he had pitched to R&B group 112 for recording consideration. The tape, which included “My Valentine,” eventually made it to Puff Daddy’s hands.
Chambers remembers, “Puffy called me himself and said, ‘I want this song.’” I was like, “You want that song for 112?” He was like, “No. I want it for Carl.”
Chambers says Puffy was adamant about getting “My Valentine” for Thomas. “He was like, ‘What’s your number? My lawyer will call your lawyer.’ Puffy was moving quickly. I was like, ‘Okay this man really wants this song and he’s putting his money where his mouth is.’”
“When we recorded the song, Puffy was really particular. He had [Carl] sing the song several times to actually get it very close to the original demo that he felt captured the exact emotion he wanted. Carl’s vocals on the song were amazing. It really did capture the nuanced, the exact poetic nuance of the demo and then brought something richer and more soulful to it. When the album came out, I realized what Puffy’s attraction was to it.
“I remember I saw the album cover and I was like, ‘Okay, Puffy is introducing Carl as an R&B poetry man. He was very different from all the other Bad Boy artists prior. Even Carl’s imaging in the album cover, it was just more sophisticated. It had nuance and poetry about it.”
“Woke Up In The Morning”
Producers: Mario Winans, Harve Pierre, Sean Combs
Writers: Carl Thomas, Carlos Broady, Christopher Wallace, Darryl McDaniels, Mario Winans, Nashiem Myrick, Sean Combs
The hip-hop-influenced “Woke Up In the Morning” samples The Notorious B.I.G.’s “My Downfall.” Winans was so moved by the production, that he decided to incorporate it on Thomas’ song.
“That song was one of my favorite records on Biggie’s [album] just because of the sample,” says Winans. “Nashiem Myrick, another one of The Hitmen, is a very talented hitmaker and producer. I pretty much took what he did and chopped it up a little bit. I just added a few drums and percussion because it was already dope and a classic record as it was.”
He continues, “Harve Pierre, the vice president of Bad Boy at the time, wrote that along with us. That was a great vibe. Matter of fact, I think Harve might have written that whole hook. I can’t remember exactly but I know he was very instrumental. After that, we just went and wrote the verses. Carl came and of course, knocked it out the park.”
Looking Back 20 Years Later…
If there was an R&B album from the early 2000s that withstood the test of time, it was Carl Thomas’ Emotional. From the searing vocal moments to the impeccable lyrics, the R&B masterpiece can be played with no skips.
The deeply personal project allowed Thomas to express his thoughts and feelings on all aspects of love, which he says was therapeutic.
“Songs like ‘You Ain’t Right’ and ‘I Wish,’ were just pleasant ways for me to complain and put it in a nice way,” he states. “That was an outlet for me because I could let those feelings out on stage.”
When asked why he thinks R&B lovers still listen to his album 20 years later, Thomas says, “I think that it serves each crowd. I think that everybody gets what they personally need from it. That’s really how that project was designed. I like writing from that aspect and like working with songwriters that can write about a subject matter that can mean several different things as well.”
Chambers adds, “He’s really a legend in his own time. He’s only going to make better and better music for the next 20 years. He has a long haul in front of him.”
Originally published on 17th April 2020, you can read the original article at Rated R&B © 2020