Back in 1999, Carl Thomas' debut album, Emotional, easily went platinum with hits including "I Wish," "Summer Rain" and the title track. But things haven't been smooth for the R&B crooner since. Just after his Let's Talk About It was released in 2004, his stepbrother was killed in a drive-by shooting, prompting Thomas to take a sabbatical from music, traveling overseas and disappearing from the public eye. His third album, So Much Better, wasn't released until 2007. Last year his friend, mentor and collaborator Heavy D died.
Finally, after another long absence, the 39-year-old singer, who says he's never been willing to make himself miserable to make his fans happy, introduced his newest album, Conquer, late last year. Despite everything he's been through, he says he didn't need to mine the past for inspiration for his most recent work.
As he prepares to release his next single, the Heavy D-produced "It Is What It Is," Thomas talked to The Root about the hardest parts of being an artist in the age of a "viral" music industry, what he will and won't do for a hit and why he refuses to judge Brian McKnight for his controversial new X-rated single.
The Root: A lot has happened in your life between your initial rise to success with Emotional and the release of Conquer. You lost your brother and your friend Heavy D, and took some time off. How have your struggles informed your new album?
Carl Thomas: The way I look at it is, I wouldn't trade my journey for anything. But at the same time, you can't try to call the end of the story, because in all of our individual lives, it ends up surprising us. It never goes the way you really envision it when you're young. I just really thank God for the grace to still be here, to still be performing and to still have a lot of interest from the fans.
But the new album is really about what's going on now. It doesn't really reflect on what was going on in my life prior to the creation of it. I wasn't dealing with a lot of issues when I was recording the album — so why dig into the past? Not even love and romance issues, but issues of family, issues of friendship — those issues that really matter at the end of the day. I decided to put those influences into the album, and give an overview of how things are going in the world today.
"Conquer" is a song that represents a culmination that I've come to in my career. It has dual meanings. It is about allowing love to conquer your situation and realizing what it's supposed to do, and it's also about self-reliance and conquering your own issues. It's somewhat dealing with the heart of man.
CT: In any age, the most challenging thing is your perception of the world versus the world's perception of you. You lose a facet of normality in your life, and you've just got to fight for the things you really want. You have to fight for the friendships and relationships that are really valuable to you. You have to decide which things you are going to allow dictate your life.
TR: Has the music industry changed since your first album came out, and how?
CT: It went viral, that's about it. There really isn't a middleman anymore between the artist and the fans because of the Internet. Those are really the only real changes. But the music business going viral is enough of a change.
TR: Speaking of connecting directly to fans through the Internet, I'm sure you heard Brian McKnight's "If You're Ready to Learn" and the resulting backlash. As one of his contemporaries, do you have any idea what that was all about?
CT: I have seen it. I think it was way out there. Brian is a really good friend of mind, and he's a very good person. I mean, would I do something like that? No, because that's really not my bag as a songwriter. I feel like you can relay the same message in a poetic fashion, and that's the challenge of being a songwriter.
But do I stand in judgment? No, not at all. We're just spotlighting him because what he said is outside of the box. We don't question hip-hop artists for saying the same thing. At the end of the day, when we're around our friends, realistically, we talk like guys do. But do I think it was a wise career move? No.
Now, if it was a parody, then I think it's funny. If he was being serious about it, then it's like, "Hey, hold your horses!" But if it was a joke, I can definitely take a joke. Everybody took it well when Justin Timberlake was singing about "D—k in a Box," and I thought that was hilarious. Now, if I were the father of a 14-year-old girl, I would feel differently.
TR: The whole fiasco made me think, it must be really tough to balance giving fans the music they expect from you, being provocative and keeping up with changing tastes. Do you relate to that at all?
CT: For me, personally, I really don't care. I don't dig that deep into pleasing the fans to the point where I make myself miserable. I just so happen to see eye to eye with my fans. But I'm not the kind of person to lay down for what someone else wants. I'm just fortunate enough to see things the same way my fans do.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.