From Douglass High to “club&b” to debut soul splash, Paula Campbell makes her own way
“You are probably going to crack up but I give AZ so much respect,” says the petite, light-skinned beauty, sitting at a white table-clothed six-seater in a windowed corner at Mo’s Fisherman Wharf in Little Italy. Initially embarrassed to admit this admiration, the eloquent yet mellow young lady’s eyes soon widen when describing her favorite MC. “I think he is so discredited with his artistry,” she says. “I met him because I was doing a show in Delaware and he was doing the same show, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ Even though he’s not the multiplatinum artist, he’s definitely great at what he does.’”
You could say the same thing about Campbell. Forget Dru Hill, Mario, and Ruff Endz—Paula Campbell has her sights set on becoming B’more’s first R&B gal. Sure, Baltimore’s streets have turned out house divas Crystal Waters and Ultra Naté and sultry smooth-jazz singer Maysa Leek, but Campbell’s surprisingly versatile and recently released solo debut, Who’s Got Next?, announces that a native R&B daughter has finally arrived.
Campbell strolls into the South President street joint on a rainy Friday evening sporting a stylish but casual Von Dutch ensemble, carrying herself more like a cool ’round-the-way girl rather than a superstar in the making, the female voice on the Fat Joe “Lean Back” remix currently rocking airwaves. She sits down and browses the menu while snapping jokes about needing to stay in shape for a video shoot but still wanting to get her grub on—though it’s surprising she has time to think about food. Her celly rings almost nonstop.
“And I just got this phone,” she jokes. “My phone before this one had the same number I had since like high school. This is nothing.”
The twentysomething, west side-bred, Owings Mills-based mother of one has loved singing since childhood, but credits vocal classes at Frederick Douglass High School as her inspiration to try music as a career. Campbell, called Sparkles during her grade-school years, got her first taste of the biz performing for family and friends and in small-time talent shows. She even sang with some of Baltimore’s R&B guys just for fun, way before recording contacts. “I used to have a group with Ruff Endz,” she remembers. “I was in middle school, and they were in high school. I also used to sing with Sisqó and Jazz.”
Campbell’s big break came two years ago as a contestant in the 2002 Baltimore Idol competition, which was aired by Fox 45. “Baltimore Idol was great for me,” Campbell says. “There was like 360 contestants, and I was in the final eight. From the television exposure and stuff like that I got to meet a lot of different people.” Among the people she met was 92Q DJ and producer Rod Lee, who took an interest . “When I auditioned, [he] was like, ‘We gotta work together,’” she recalls.
Lee, the current king of Baltimore club music, had written a song for a female vocalist and presented it to Campbell. “I hated the song,” she says. “It was pretty wack. Sorry, Rod. But by that time we had built a rep and friendship, so I am like, ‘I hate this and I’m not singing this.’ And he’s like, ‘OK. Well, let me see what you come up with.’”
What she came up with turned out to be the hottest local radio/club hit of 2003, “How Does It Feel,” featuring the unmistakable voice of local hip-hop artist Tim Trees spittin’ rhymes. Not bad for a song that was written while Campbell was bathing.
“I came up with the first verse and the chorus while I was in the shower,” she says. “I jumped out of the shower—seriously, I jumped out of the shower and wrote that down real quick and jumped back in.” Once dressed, she rushed the idea back to Lee, and in less than two weeks the song was hitting the clubs. A month later, in late 2002/early ’03, the song was placed in heavy rotation on 92Q and soon became the station’s No. 1 requested song.
Popular for her club&B songs, Campbell now wants to establish herself as a legitimate soul singer. Her debut album, Who’s Got Next?, which was released in May on Blakbyrd Music, shows the vocalist flexing her range on club bangers like “Take You Home” as well as on smooth ballads such as “Love Again” and “Sorry.” Handling most of the writing and arranging (she was also the executive producer), Campbell put more than just her voice into this project, adding a feminine touch to street attitudes and emotions.
On the opening title track, Campbell announces her arrival and ambition: “Sometimes it frustrates me/ I’m not where I’m supposed to be/ BET, MTV, the Grammys, and in every VIP/ It’s coming slowly/ and surely I’m gonna take it/ I’m going places and I’ve got what it takes to make.” Her crisp voice, shifting from a powerful wail to a soft croon, is unique enough to separate her from other female vocalists out there but easily folds into the R&B/pop radio mix. She brings a tough soulfulness to the “Lean Back” remix, while her sexy ballad “You Make Me . . . ” recalls Faith Evans’ “Soon as I Get Home” and is already getting slow-jam airplay.
Campbell had already tried this game before, working with a few groups that didn’t fly before branching out on her own. “I used to sing with Blu Cantrell,” she says. “We had a group called 8th Avenue. I used to sing with Tamar Braxton and we had a group called Diamonds. And actually I was requested to join Groove Theory after Amel Larrieux left, but that didn’t pan out.”
She has also encountered some of the typical obstacles facing an attractive woman in show biz. “As a young female R&B artist you get a lot of males that think, Hey, I can make your dreams come true, so can I get some?” she says. “Then there are guys that think you’re not smart about the business at all, so they want to take advantage of you and take your money, and people that think everything should be done for you and you shouldn’t do anything on your own.”
Industry snakes aren’t the only predators lurking in the grass; right here at home, Campbell has run into folks looking to sink their teeth into her. “I do believe that money is the root of all evil,” she says. “In the little success that I’ve had, people see that and they see there’s money. A few times I’ve run into situations where people just come into my circle because they feel that they can gain [something]. It’s not at all to say, ‘I believe in Paula. I wanna see her make it.’”
Thing is, Campbell is still putting in work just trying to make it. She’s not there yet. She opened for Kayne West when he performed at a packed UMBC Fieldhouse in April. And, more recently she and local hip-hopper DJ Spontaneous ripped the stage before LL Cool J came on at the 2004 African American Heritage Festival. The very next day she went back to work on the video for “Take You Home.”
But she doesn’t mind. She’s thought about having a solo debut since her pre-teen years, and she knows the Whitney, Faith, and Kanye success doesn’t come overnight. She can’t decide what she wants to eat, but she knows what she wants. “It will [happen] when it’s meant to happen,” Campbell says, quietly sipping her iced tea. “I want to give Beyoncé some competition.”
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