June 30, 2003 12:00 PM

Monica (J)

Critic’s Choice

Take note, Whitney: Monica has made the kind of album that you should have made instead of last fall’s lackluster Just Whitney. Saucy yet sultry, hip but not too hip-hop, the 22-year-old singer’s first disc since 1998’s multiplatinum The Boy Is Mine is about as good as it gets for contemporary R&B-pop divas. The secret to the CD’s success is an old-meets-new-school vibe that should please both teenyboppers and their parents. The first single “So Gone,” one of three standout tracks produced and cowritten by Missy Elliot, samples the Whispers’ 1977 song “You Are Number One” to bring about a retro-soul reverie reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 hit “Day Dreaming.” Elsewhere Monica sings and raps on the ’80s-style party jam “Get It Off,” which lifts its percolating groove from Strafe’s 1985 club classic “Set it Off.” Guest vocals by Tyrese, DMX and Tweet complement Monica’s fully matured alto, which is equally adept at gospel-tinged numbers like the acoustic-guitar-laced “That’s My Man” and pop-flavored ones like the bittersweet ballad “Breaks My Heart.”

BOTTOM LINE: A near-perfect Storm

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