Pop-oriented contemporary R&B artist Mya arrived in 1998, when she was 18 years old. Within only a few years, the singer, songwriter, and dancer had two platinum albums and a gold one, a clutch of Top Ten pop hits, and a Grammy Award. Just as significantly, she developed from an artist frequently compared to the likes of Brandy and Aaliyah into one with her own identity. Sounding innocent and knowing at once, while consistently upbeat and confident, she released some of the most memorable R&B singles of the late ’90s and early 2000s, including “It’s All About Me,” “Case of the Ex,” and “Fallen.” Mya took her rightful place in a continuum of stylistically similar artists that gave way to Ciara, Rihanna, and Tinashe, among others, then went independent in the late 2000s as she divided her work between recording, acting, philanthropy, teaching, and even competing on Dancing with the Stars.
Mya was raised in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, where she took dance and music classes as a child. After briefly losing interest in the dance, she returned to it in her preteens and eventually joined the dance troupe T.W.A. (Tappers with Attitude). She left the group after a short while and headed to New York to study at the Dance Theater of Harlem with Savion Glover, best known as the choreographer/mastermind behind the Broadway spectacular Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Her passion for improvisation made her a favorite of Glover’s, who had her perform solo at the Kennedy Center.
Although Mya was best known as a dancer, she was also musically inclined. During her childhood, she learned to sing and play the violin. When her father, a professional musician, learned that his daughter could sing and was serious about a musical career, he shopped around demo tapes. The recordings eventually earned the attention of Haqq Islam, president of University Music. Impressed with Mya’s audition, Islam subsequently worked out a deal with major-label Interscope.
Mya and Interscope spent the next year working on her self-titled debut album, hiring an impressive list of collaborators who included Babyface, Diane Warren, Wyclef Jean, Missy Elliott, and Dru Hill’s Sisqó and Nokio. The result, released in April 1998, was a smooth R&B song cycle about love and growing up. The first two singles, “It’s All About Me” and “Movin’ On,” reached the Top Five of the Billboard R&B chart and sent the album to platinum status. Two years later, Fear of Flying, which featured collaborations with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Jadakiss, as well as a handful of tracks made with a pre-fame Robin Thicke, arrived with a Top 20 placement on the Billboard 200. Its biggest hit was “Case of the Ex,” an early hit for emergent producer Tricky Stewart, but it was outshone early the following year by “Lady Marmalade,” recorded with Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera, and P!nk for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. The colorful cover of the LaBelle classic reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and won a 2002 Grammy Award in the category of Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. Also in 2002, Mya appeared as a murderers’ row prisoner in Chicago.
Moodring, Mya’s third album, was issued in June 2003 and would be her last release to be certified gold. Top-heavy with “My Love Is Like…Wo” and “Fallen” as the first two songs and the only singles, it was nonetheless her finest album, enhanced with input from the likes of Stewart, Elliott, Timbaland, and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The path to Mya’s fourth album was not nearly as smooth. Numerous obstacles were encountered before, during, and after its making. There were acting roles in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Shall We Dance?, and Cursed. She moved from A&M/Interscope to Motown for the somewhat ironically titled Liberation, which was released only in Japan. Mya established her own label, Planet 9, but her fifth album — Sugar & Spice, released in standard and double-disc editions — wasn’t released outside Japan either. A digital download mixtape was made available in 2009, the same year Mya competed on the ninth season of Dancing with the Stars. Two years later, she released K.I.S.S. (Keep It Sexy & Simple), her most pop- and club-oriented album. A trio of relatively R&B-rooted EPs — With Love, Sweet XVI, and Love Elevation Suite — followed in 2014 and 2015. On Valentine’s Day 2016, Mya released her seventh LP, Smoove Jones, which received a Best R&B Album nomination at the 59th Grammy Awards. ~ Andy Kellman & Stephen Thomas Erlewine