The jaguar sneaks up on you. Victoria Monét can relate. One day you could audition for a Darkchild-sponsored girl group that never got off the ground, and nine years later, you could be a celebrated songwriter picking up Grammy nominations for work on Ariana Grande’s thank u, next—and the crowd probably still don’t know your name. So Victoria Monét McCants, who’d always dreamed of becoming a triple threat, adopted the apex predator. It must have worked, because Jaguar II, originally slated as the second in a trio of EPs, was promoted to full album. Slick and professional without feeling impersonal, Monét’s first LP is fresh, populist R&B illustrated in the harvest-gold hues of the 1970s, a vision of plush velvet paintings and even plusher video treatments, an album designed to marry the analog textures of Smokey Robinson with the sparkling earworms of Keri Hilson.
The first Jaguar, released in 2020, was about the good life: Monét wrote a ballad celebrating what squats can do for your butt, a car-sex jam about hooking up with Kehlani (with Kehlani on the remix). Jaguar II lives there too, rolling up with the weed-blazing Lucky Daye duet “Smoke” and turning out for “Party Girls,” a reggae-pop cut with Jamaican heavyweight Buju Banton. This song and the extremely fun, choreo-forward third single, “On My Mama,” are slight stylistic outliers on an album saturated in what Monét has called “elevated soul,” the glossy, Motown-inspired sound she and returning executive producer D’Mile summoned for the first installment of Jaguar. “I felt like a wannabe Quincy Jones,” Monét said of the earlier record. Writing and recording during the pandemic touring freeze, she’d imagined how she would one day present the songs onstage, “thinking about how a Bruno Mars or an Earth, Wind & Fire show would feel.” (The next year, D’Mile’s take on neoclassical R&B comfort food would reach larger audiences with his work on An Evening With Silk Sonic.)
In a sense we have Bruno Mars to thank, because he’s the reason Monét started writing hooks. In 2010, Mars landed his first vocal credit as a featured guest on rapper B.o.B’s debut single “Nothin’ on You,” a surprise No. 1 hit. The younger Monét, with several songwriting credits already to her name, regarded it as a case study for how a well-placed vocal feature could launch a solo career. She decided to specialize in writing pop hooks, promoting herself as a singer by putting her own vocals on demo tracks. Eventually she landed a B.o.B feature too. “I would try to sing them so well that they wouldn’t take me off and replace it with another artist, and sometimes it would work,” she recently explained in conversation with Earth, Wind & Fire.
Speaking of Earth, Wind & Fire: Jaguar II practically counts as a stop on the veteran band’s summer tour. They’re prominently featured on “Hollywood,” and the late Maurice White picks up a credit for a “Beijo” interpolation on “Smoke”; in the video, Monét slaps on a Verdine White mustache to reenact “September.” The ’70s revival aesthetic might recall Foxxy Cleopatra, teen Beyoncé’s Pam Grier-inspired character in Austin Powers, but Monét is taking more notes from the grown Beyoncé of Lemonade and Renaissance, building toward ambitious statements rooted in music that reminds her of family, culture, and home. The legacy guests, EW&F and Banton, are voices from Monét’s memories of family gatherings and her mom’s Sunday housecleaning soundtrack. She taps into her own generational nostalgia for “On My Mama,” a glammed-up flip of Chalie Boy’s 2009 song “I Look Good” designed for feeling yourself on a level only Texas rap braggadocio can match. Monét isn’t rapping, but you could play her right alongside Megan.
Jaguar II sounds like checking in someplace swanky: the arrangements are contractor-grade, rewardingly rich, augmented with the kind of live trumpet and violin you don’t get at home. It’s Monét’s longest release yet, with transitional moments (“Smoke Reprise”) and a track-to-track mix that isn’t quite continuous but clearly intended for fluid listening. The hooks come gift wrapped and hang around longer than Mylar balloons. “We keep it smooth like a Cadillac/With the diamond spinners in the back,” Monét coos on “Cadillac (A Pimp’s Anthem),” a dub-flavored soundtrack for low-riding ladies where a playful allusion to “five with the Black hand side”—as in “gimme some skin”—becomes a period-appropriate flirt.
Monét excels at striking this tone that’s classic, sexy, understated. Even when she makes it dirty, there’s a veneer of fantasy and metaphor, like how it still counts as a dress even if it’s mesh. “Might be too fine to hit it from behind,” she brags on “On My Mama,” a wink-wink you could almost blink and miss. “Stop (Asking Me 4 Shyt),” about hangers-on looking for unearned favors, feels like a complaint that could’ve been lodged by some jazz diva a century ago. “Stop askin’ me for money, get your own/I barely even just got on,” Monét objects, but her line readings feel more influenced by mellow ’90s R&B, so it’s easy to add a modernizing, “Don’t call my phone… bitch.” (Mercifully she does not try to rhyme anything with “Cash App,” whose brand placement is limited to those expensive-looking videos.)
Taking “Party Girls” into the Kaytranada-produced “Alright” is a play-it-straight-through flex that ends with a big-cat growl—arrrgh. But as brand-name producer collaborations go, the first Jaguar’s S.G. Lewis disco groove “Experience” shone a little brighter. And though these days Monét’s deep cuts are much too good to be called filler, the hook-focused writing style fosters songs that bet long on a pretty melody and a broad idea, like cosmic love is divine on “How Does It Make You Feel?” or Hollywood is all glitter on “Hollywood.” Within the sequence, this lighter fare is pleasant, an eminently listenable update on an iconic sound; still, you wish she’d spill about some of these randos with the ridiculous financing requests, drive that Cadillac somewhere and not just spin the wheels. In Monét’s songs, love can be idealized even when it doesn’t work out. In “I’m the One,” her beau wouldn’t recognize her brilliance even if God’s own angels seated her directly on their face.
Sometimes Jaguar II kinda feels like that: Frictionless, full of instrumental flourishes so smooth they risk sailing by unremarked. Monét can sell even a slightly clunky lyric with practiced polish, sounding like the consummate performer even when you know she’s lived it. The only real unguarded moment comes at the end of “Hollywood” (“Dreaming bigger than I ever should”), with a loud giggle-squeal from Monét’s baby, who’s now 2. You’ll have to check the credits to see that it is her daughter’s voice—more meaningful and, in a way, less obvious than the jaguar growl. Even if you get the sense her best work still lies ahead, it’s refreshing to see an emerging star earn their concept album. Simply imagining you are Bruno Mars won’t take you there—but an album like Jaguar II will. It’s the rare species of pop-soul that evokes a real sense of spiritual uplift: We’re not just succeeding, we’re made for better things.