A few years ago, Lil' Mo just knew she had the skills to rock the mic. But as the singer will tell you, her career path was different from what it is now.
"I was thinking I was a rapper," the self-proclaimed tomboy whose debut album, Based on a True Story, is due on June 26 admitted. "I used to be freestyling around the school. I was trying to find myself. The way I'm animated, I was like, 'Singers can't do that.' Then I was like, 'Forget that. I could do whatever I want.' "
Today Mo, 23, still freestyles while she sings. She's more likely to make a hit that way, like on the remix to Ja Rule's "Put It on Me."
"Irv Gotti [Head of Ja Rule's label, Murder Inc.] called me and was like, 'Yo, I got a smash,' " she said of the song. " 'I want this to have the same effect that Method Man and Mary J. [Blige]'s "All I Need' had.' "
On her way to the studio to lay her vocals, Mo found she couldn't prepare any satisfactory material. "I balled up everything I wrote and was like, 'Let me freestyle,' " she said. "When I freestyle, when I do it quick, that's when the best stuff comes out."
She followed the same formula (or lack thereof) for her current smash, the DJ Clue- and Duro-produced "Superwoman Part 1." This time, she had no choice but to come up with something on the spot.
"I had to use somebody else's studio time. They don't even know about [it]," she said, chuckling. "I was wrapping up [another] session I had, and Clue and them had to catch a flight. I was like, 'Clue, let me get that beat, let me see what I can do to it.' It took me about two hours. I was finished before their plane landed."
Now Mo, who's made a name for herself songwriting and singing hooks for the likes of Keith Sweat, Lil' Bow Wow, 3LW, Next, ODB, Blackstreet and her good friend Missy Elliott, finally has a hit to call her own.
She claims to like her collaborations all the same, but you have to believe her cameo on Jay-Z's "Parking Lot Pimping" is high up on her favorites list.
"I was trying to go with him first," Mo said of working with Jigga. "Nah. But I had a crush on him. I was like, 'If we did a song together, it would be pretty much over with!' Then he just called me to do a song."
Mo's also catching heavy rotation now with Ja Rule's "I Cry" and Tupac's "Thug Nature," though her main focus is seeing Based On a True Story hit stores in June.
The Long Island, New York, native said her album has been three years in the making, and fighting with her label over her image, her material and delays had her ready to put her mic on the shelf and just write.
"I was gonna quit last year," she lamented. "I was like, 'Y'all pushing my album back too much, it's pretty much over with.' But once the Jay-Zs and Snoop Doggs started calling me, then I [said,] 'All right. I'll rock with it.' "
Mo's album, which has been sitting on the shelf for over a year, has gone through some reconstruction, which she said will allow people get to know more of what she's about. There are more uptempo tracks like "Superwoman" and "Keep It Gangsta," where she sings over the classic beat to Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," to go along with the ballads, such as her remake of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."
Mo's just as thankful for having more input on her image. The short haircut she was seen wearing in the early ads for her album has been replaced by multicolored cornrow braids that match her outfits. The singer has finally gotten her way to keep it straight "gully" (real).
"[The label] was like, 'You should wear your hair this way and wear makeup,' " she said. "Before, when I rocked my hair short, I looked like everybody else. I have a do-rag on right now. People know now. They're like, 'What color is she gonna wear?' When I'm allowed to do me, we win."
Speaking of winning, Mo feels that as a solo artist she's not chasing her success as the guest star with the golden touch.
"I don't get discouraged [and think] my song ain't gonna be as big as Ja's, because it's two different labels and two different artists," she explained. "It's never like, 'Damn, I did 2 million with them and 1 million by myself.' At the end of the day, I'm still on both songs. I'm still gonna get the checks."