Who Is Paula Campbell?
A ‘Round-The-Way Baltimore Girl. A Single Mom. An R&B Star In The Making
Paula Campbell is sitting in the deserted top floor of a hip Mount Vernon restaurant, sipping water. Occasionally she struggles with getting a grilled vegetable from her chopsticks into her mouth, laughing. It’s a drizzly early April Friday, the kind where it’s not raining hard enough to justify an umbrella but just hard enough to make you worry for your hair and makeup. So Campbell is wearing a cap. The black newsboy is pulled just above her eyes, her auburn hair trickling out from underneath and over her shoulders in gentle waves.
Right after she gets up from the table Campbell will be whisked off to the 92Q studios for four hours, fielding calls and introducing records as part of her burgeoning gig as a radio personality.
“She had a great track record as a very strong local artist,” says Victor Starr, program director for 92Q. “And I just love her as a person—she’s fun to be around and had a great personality.” Starr offered her an on-air spot, and now she’s on from 3 to 7 p.m. every Saturday she’s in town. “Of course, there’s times where she’s rehearsing and in studios and whatnot,” Starr says. “But more often then not, she’s on.”
Campbell has been on the air only a few months, not long enough for Starr to see official ratings, but he says he doesn’t really need them. “The phones blow up—everybody wants to talk to Paula,” he says. “The women want to talk to Paula because she writes music they identify with, and the guys want to talk to Paula because they know she’s attractive.”
Radio requires no star styling, so Campbell’s outfit this afternoon seems inconspicuous at first glance. But her jeans probably cost more than a month’s rent on a Mount Vernon apartment, or at least look that way. She’s also wearing a vintage red Members Only jacket over an artfully ripped black T-shirt featuring an image of Black Panther and feminist icon Angela Davis.
This is Paula Campbell: a young, stylish single mom who grew up on the west side, still calls Baltimore her home, and still has the relaxed “What’s up?” appeal of a girl who never left the ’hood. But this is also the Paula Campbell that maybe you’ve seen in magazines and on TV and on the sides of MTA buses. You’ve almost certainly heard her on the radio, where Campbell suddenly blew up in 2003 with an innovative single called “How Does It Feel?” Produced by club king Rod Lee, the song gave the hard, flat beats of B-more club music a creamy soul center, perhaps the city’s first truly unique take on R&B.
Since then, Campbell has been on the grind, more like a hustling rapper than an R&B singer. She’s played shows wherever promoters would have her, sharing the stage with hard-core MC Bone Crusher and the cuddlier Kanye West alike. She’s laced local and national remixes with her smooth yet slightly tart voice. And she released a hit independent album in 2004 called Who’s Got Next?, which cemented her status locally and started getting her attention outside I-695. Suddenly Campbell’s face and pipes have become Baltimore’s next best hope for national R&B stardom (“Lady’s Choice,” Big Music Issue, July 21, 2004).
Even without the airbrush gloss and thousand-dollar hair of a promotional photo, Campbell looks beautiful. Throughout the interview she flashes the kind of smile that label execs would slice off a pinky for. She’s bling-free, except for tasteful diamond studs in her ears. Oh, and a flawless-looking and quite large yellow diamond on her right hand. It’s unclear if it is an engagement ring or just the fruits of signing to a major label.
Campbell, for her part, demurs when the question is broached. It’s hard to imagine she has much time for romance. By her own admission she spends about two days of any given week in Baltimore these days. Last summer Campbell scrapped the beginnings of her second independent album when she was scooped up by the entertainment monolith known as Sony BMG. Ever since, her life has been a whirlwind of contracts, photo shoots, writing, recording, promotional stops, and, yes, interviews.
“I used to be so afraid of flying—and I’m still so afraid of flying—but now I’m on planes every week,” she says.
Next week, Campbell is flying to Florida to hook up with Southern rap legends, and now Oscar-winners, Three 6 Mafia. “I’m going to redo the vocal on ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,’” she says. “We were talking to [Three 6 Mafia member] Juicy J, and it’s going to be on Project Pat’s new album.” Campbell was at one point angling to sing the hook live for the trio’s epochal performance on the Academy Awards show itself. It’s risking cliché to say that fame has changed Paula Campbell’s life, but how else to describe a woman who just three years ago had to take time off from her day job to sing and is now narrowly missing the red carpet?
Campbell’s forthcoming Sony debut is bluntly titled I Am Paula Campbell. It’s exactly the kind of title you’d expect from someone who wants to be seen as a straight shooter, a ‘round-the-way girl, in a world of music-industry bullshit. But of course there’s only so much life you can squeeze onto 60 minutes of a CD. And since the release of I Am Paula Campbell is still a few months away, the question remains, even among many Baltimoreans: Who is Paula Campbell?
Now in her 20s—she gently nudges the conversation away from her actual age with that 10,000-watt smile—Campbell wanted to sing almost from the moment she could talk. “I’ve been in and out of studios since I was like 11,” she says. “I did every last assembly or program they had at school. I remember being 4 and knowing then, when I saw Star Search, that I wanted to be a singer.”
When asked what her life was like growing up, she replies flatly, “Bad.” She quickly corrects herself: “It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t . . . horrible.” There’s a long pause. “We were . . . broke. I wouldn’t say poor. But we were broke. More of a lower-income family. My mom didn’t work, so we were supported on public assistance. We moved around a lot—school to school to school. My mom was a single parent, and she also had custody of two of my uncles, along with my sister and my brother. It was just a very, very hard life just growing up and trying to maintain.” Her father, she adds, “just wasn’t around,” though she says they never really lost contact and have grown closer in recent years.
So Campbell sang. She sang at the mall. She sang at 7-Eleven. She sang anywhere someone wouldn’t shush her, and sometimes in places where people would shush her anyway. Folks started to take notice of the young girl with the untrained but pretty voice singing Toni Braxton songs outside of convenience stores. Talent scouts, managers, studio owners, radio personalities, and producers began courting the preteen Campbell. About the only place she wasn’t getting love for her singing was at home.
“My mom was never really supportive of my music,” Campbell says with a hint of sadness creeping out from behind the smile. “My dad loved my voice, but he was always really skeptical because he didn’t think I really wanted it. So no one really pushed me.”
“She has a song on the new album that she dedicated to Baltimore,” says Kristal Oliver of the Philadelphia-based Home Cookin’ Productions, the studio team that co-executive produced I Am Paula Campbell. “Because she told us that coming up she got more support from the streets, from the people of Baltimore, than she did from the people close to her.”
“As a woman or a young adult or a child growing up, you want that support and attention from your mother,” Campbell says. “You want her to see. So I think more than anything it was to prove to her that you might not believe in it, but here it is. I’m gonna let everybody see, and sooner or later you’re gonna see it. She’s more supportive now. She loves what I do and she’s proud of me, but I won’t say we have that connection where it’s, ‘Aw, you’re so great.’”
Campbell says her sister was the family academic, and though Campbell was “a B student” and spent a few semesters at Coppin State University, she already knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. “In those young teenage years, it’s like, cool’s not school,” she laughs. “Which is so wrong.”
Outside of school, her teenage years brought a string of career near-misses and disappointments. “An offer came up for me to join [R&B group] Groove Theory,” she says. “And that didn’t pan out. And then I was in a group with Tamar Braxton. And that didn’t pan out. And I was in a group with Blu Cantrell called 8th Avenue. And that didn’t pan out. There were so many things coming my way, and it was like, um, This isn’t it. Again. Right when you’re at the door.”
And then another bump: Campbell, still in high school, got pregnant with her daughter, Dominique. Campbell beams whenever she talks about her daughter, who is now 8, but thought at first that a child might kill a career still in its own infancy.
“When you have a child it just . . . changed me and who I was,” Campbell says. “I gave up [singing] because I thought I was just supposed to be a mother and maybe just have that life—just a regular life. And as she grew up, before she even turned 1, I started singing again. I realized that if I wasn’t happy, she couldn’t possibly be happy.”
And how does her daughter feel about mom’s newfound success? “She loves it,” Campbell says. “She loves every part of it. And when I have to travel, she’s like, ‘OK, Mommy, when are you coming back?’ And she’s happy that I’m happy. And we get to spend time together. My schedule hasn’t really taken off yet, so I think I’m still going to have to learn how to cope with that. But her life is very stable, even when I’m away.”
The turning point in Campbell’s career came in 2002 when she was featured on Fox 45’s “Baltimore Idol” competition. Out of an initial pool of almost 400 contestants, Campbell advanced to the final eight. And though she didn’t win—graciously, she says the winner, Maimouna Youssef, “totally deserved to win”—it was there that DJ and club legend Rod Lee first noticed Campbell. After dismissing the song Lee had originally written to the “How Does it Feel?” beat as “kinda wack,” Campbell wrote her own version (in the shower, no less), and it quickly blew up after Lee dropped it on 92Q and at his club gigs.
“The first time I heard myself on the radio it was Rod playing my song on 92Q,” she says. “I wasn’t that pumped. But when they put it in regular rotation because it was being requested . . . when I heard—I think it was K-Swift—saying, ‘We got Paula Campbell by request,’ I was like, Ohhhhh shit. And the next thing I know they were playing it 40 or 50 times a week. Every time it would come on, I would turn the radio up. I probably lost my breath every time I heard it.”
But after the initial success of “How Does it Feel?” Campbell felt constrained by Lee, who she says wanted to call all the shots. She soon met her current manager, Greg Baker, who sits at another table throughout the interview, unobtrusively eating breakfast and fielding phone calls and e-mails. Campbell says she feels protected in the minefield of the music industry by Baker, an affable guy who couldn’t be further from the typical snake-in-the-grass caricature of a manager. In 2003, the two began work on Campbell’s independent debut, Who’s Got Next?
“I was still working with Rod Lee at the time, and he was totally against” working on the album, Campbell says. “He was like, ‘I’m about to start working with someone else, and I need you to sit until I’m ready to do another song.’ I can’t just sit. I’m not waiting. This is my life. This is my career. And he was like, ‘Well, if you think you can do it without me, go ahead.’” Campbell says she still makes sure she gives “shouts to Rod,” and credits him with launching her career.
After breaking with Lee, Campbell was in constant, frantic motion. “I remember when ‘Take You Home’ was on the radio, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pay my rent,” she says. “I gotta get a show, I gotta get a show, I gotta get a show, I gotta get a show. I’m on the TV, I’m on the radio, I’m down in the subway, I’m on the sides of buses . . . and I’m broke.”
It was then that Campbell started performing on rap bills. “I would be the only female artist or the only R&B singer,” she says. “That was my way of coming up. Honestly, I didn’t even want to, I didn’t think it was the best thing for me. When you’re on a show with Bone Crusher or David Banner when they’re first coming up . . . ” She starts to sing the chorus of Bone Crusher’s crunk anthem “Never Scared” and laughs. “And I was like, ‘How does it feeeeeel?’ It’s just like . . . what? But it’s a show. So I couldn’t turn it down.”
And it worked. Who’s Got Next? dropped in April of 2004, and the huge drums and brassy synths of “Take You Home” (whose chorus cheekily flipped Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s ’80s roller-rink classic “I Wonder if I Take You Home”) became Campbell’s next big regional hit. By the summer of 2004, Campbell had found her way onto a remix of Terror Squad’s smash “Lean Back.”
“I first met her before I even came to [92Q], about three years ago,” says DJ Spontaneous of 92Q’s Big Phat Morning Show. “I asked her to host a mixtape of mine. And it was, ‘No problem, just tell me where to go,’ and she came to the studio and made it happen. That’s when she came out with the ‘Lean Back’ remix, and that was probably the hottest remix out at the time.”
More remix work followed. She found herself opening for superstars like LL Cool J and a triumphant performance at a Kanye West show at UMBC where the still relatively unknown Campbell was flanked by eight dancers. Major-label ears pricked up. And so, when Sony came calling in May 2005, Campbell took her lunge at the platinum ring.
Of course, signing to a major label is no guarantee of success. And there’s a lot riding on Campbell’s success. Despite the success of local quartet Dru Hill in the ’90s and group member Sisqó’s brief ubiquity as 2000 dawned, thanks to his awesomely tacky and utterly inescapable “Thong Song,” B-more’s R&B community has lagged behind the explosion of its hip-hop scene over the last few years. As a result, Campbell’s closest contemporary is a rapper, not a singer—Bossman. Like Campbell, the Northeast Baltimore MC was an unknown three years ago, until a 2004 independent smash album—with an independent smash single perhaps not coincidentally also produced by Rod Lee—ignited a bidding war that found him with a seven-figure deal at Virgin Records.
Bossman and Campbell are the only musicians in Baltimore right now with that kind of money being thrown at them, and they’re also the only ones with those kind of expectations to live up to. An unknown singer from New York or Atlanta or any other national musical megamart isn’t going to be seen as failing her city if her album stiffs. If Campbell is worried, however, she’s already too much of a professional to let it show. A hint of doubt creases her voice when the subject first comes up, but it’s quickly smoothed out by a smile and the blithe “If it sells 10 or 10 million, I’ll be happy” response that’s probably a media clause in major-label contracts.
Which is not to say Campbell isn’t hungry. “As far as the females on Sony . . . well, I look at every female artist as competition,” she says. “It was really hard, getting a deal with a major. ‘Well, you guys have this much success, what do you need us for?’ We had a meeting with Donnie Ienner [of Sony], who was skeptical about signing me. You know, I don’t know if he was looking for the fight in me. He said they had so many female artists—Amerie, Beyoncé, J.Lo . . . so many people are on Sony, under that umbrella. It’s just crazy as far as female artists are concerned. And I’m like, you know, none of them have the street appeal, and they’re not me. This is what I have to offer. And eventually he said yes. I don’t know if it was to challenge who I was—is this girl who she says she is?”
“She’s a real perfectionist in the studio,” Home Cookin’s Oliver says. “When we’d present her with a song idea, if something seemed off, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not how we say that in Baltimore.’”
“Or if something sounded like it was from Atlanta or New York,” says Carvin Haggins of the Karma Productions duo, who were, along with Home Cookin’, co-producers on Campbell’s Sony album. “She always wanted to make sure the music reflected Baltimore.”
Campbell wrote or co-wrote most of Who’s Got Next? but admits that since being signed to Sony, “I’m backed up a lot. I haven’t been as creative as I could be. And it’s not that I’m scared or that I’m intimidated, but I’m just working with so many great people that it’s more like I’m just watching and learning in awe of all these people I’ve gotten a chance to work with.”
“Paula was brought to us by our management,” Haggins says. “They went up to New York and met with Sony and were playing them records. And they played them a record called ‘Crying Tonight,’ which Kristal wrote, and Sony fell in love with it. They said they had this new artist they wanted to put on it—Paula Campbell. They made arrangements for her to come down to the studio [in Philadelphia].”
“Kristal and Carvin can tell you better how she is in the studio. Me personally, I don’t like her,” Karma’s Ivan Barias jokes.
“Kristal and I would come up with song concepts, and we’d sit down with Paula and talk about her life, what she’d been through, and all of her experiences,” Haggins says. “We really did a whole background check on her.”
“I didn’t do a lot of writing on this album,” Campbell acknowledges. “But the songs that I chose, the stories that I told, were all my stories.”
The first to be released from I Am Paula Campbell to stores and radio, what Campbell calls her “street single, “Won’t Love You Back,” was written by Home Cookin’s Oliver and produced by Karma Productions. It’s a sultry, midtempo song with a strutting beat buffeted by gauzy harp runs, pillowy soul music with Campbell singing a bit like Faith Evans used to when Biggie did her wrong. But pretty quickly you realize Campbell’s rival for her man’s affections isn’t another woman but the thug life itself. “It’s like you’re married to the streets,” Campbell sings, “you never have no love for me.” It’s this mix of the rough and the smooth that defines Campbell’s take on R&B.
“She’s definitely got a real street edge,” Oliver says. “None of the songs are, like, pop songs.”
“But I think ‘Crying Tonight’ will crossover,” Barias says. “I think that’s going to be a huge hit.”
Looking at the pop charts, you might think female R&B singers are one of America’s strongest renewable resources. Every year there’s a new crop—Amerie, Yummy Bingham, Teairra Marí, Brooke Valentine, Christina Milian, Teedra Moses, and Ciara, just to name only a handful from the last few years. Most will be lucky to score one smash. Fewer still will ever experience anything like Beyoncé’s success. And few to none will prove themselves aesthetically the way someone like Mary J. Blige has. It’s an overgrown market, and that kind of success, financially and creatively, takes a drive most people aren’t blessed with.
Campbell definitely seems to have the drive, even if the world outside the Mid-Atlantic is a big question mark at the moment. “It’s like high school,” she says, “being the most popular chick ever, and then going into a space where nobody knows you.”
Right now, I Am Paula Campbell is scheduled for release late this year. “But we’ve also been talking about moving it back,” Campbell says. “I’m looking at Baltimore and D.C., [fans are like] ‘When is it coming out?’ But what they don’t understand is that I’ve got to get the rest of the world to love. The rest of the world knows nothing about me.” Campbell and her manager are currently planning a video for the album’s second single, “Champion.” It’s not Campbell’s first time in front of the camera, but she hopes it is the first that people remember. “We did a video for ‘Take You Home,’” Campbell laughs, “which I hope no one ever sees.”
Campbell says her life is completely different from how it was a year ago, which was completely different from how it was a year before that. Hardly surprising, but not all to the good. “Suddenly I’m not being treated like a person anymore,” she says. “I like the feeling of, ‘Hey, Paula, what’s up?’ And now it’s like, ‘Ohhhhh, Paula, you’re so great!’ It’s just so full of B.S., the industry is. And I just really want it to be ‘Hey’ like it used to be.”
There’s a twinge of regret in her voice when she talks about being away from home so much, especially being away from her daughter, but she just as quickly flips back to hard resolve, talking about how she “can’t just hang” anymore. Like many people who grew up poor and in less than ideal circumstances, Campbell is conflicted: You spend your life constantly trying to get out, but what’s the cost, once you finally do?
“Everything that I’ve gone through is definitely a blessing,” Campbell says. “Even all of my struggles, which have taught me that even at the top I’ve still got to maintain my grind because it’s gotten me where I am.” And if that grind eventually takes her to the top of the Billboard charts? “My connection with the streets is not . . . of course, I don’t want to let it go, but I don’t even think it’s a question of letting it go. Everything that I am comes from the streets of Baltimore.”
She smiles that smile as she says it, and even though she’s repeating herself it doesn’t feel like a line.
The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience
Role Model (5/26/2010)
In his new book, John Waters writes about amateur pornographers, lesbian strippers, and Clarabell the Clown and reveals . . . himself
Transmodern Festival 2010 (4/14/2010)
Introduction and Schedule of Events
Keeping Up (12/2/2009)
Nearly 20 years after his death, Arthur Russell finally gets the biography he deserves
Human Architecture (7/29/2009)
The protagonist isn't the only one obsessed with capturing life in two dimensions in Asterios Polyp
The Unseen (11/5/2008)
Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201