In 2021, Victoria Monét had a test of strength so intense that, she tells SELF, “I felt like Rocky.” The 30-year-old dancer turned singer isn’t talking about logging intense hours in the studio, though she’s very familiar with that. She’s co-written hits for Chloe x Halle, a little song called “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande, and she released her second album, Jaguar II, on August 25.
Sitting down with her over Zoom, I’m excited to discuss the album. But in this moment, we’re talking about how she became a mom—when a short walk to see her baby was one of the most taxing physical feats of her life. It was February 2021, and Monét and her partner, John Gaines, had just welcomed their daughter, Hazel. After an unexpected C-section, Hazel emerged, but she had breathing complications. “They took her to the NICU after I breastfed her for a little bit,” Monét recalls.
The medical staff told her that she would have to be physically able to get out of bed and walk in order to see her newborn again—a common precautionary measure after a C-section. “Literally I was screaming to turn sideways in the bed and getting up and down, and they were like, ‘You know, you can’t be in the NICU and fall,’” Monét says. The moment her strength came back to her, she made her way right to Hazel.
Monét’s birthing experience paralleled my own. I also had an unexpected C-section. Mine was seven months before she and I spoke in April, so I understand the mix of emotions that rush through your body when you’ve just given birth to a child who needs comfort—and you need comfort too. Research indicates that the number of unscheduled cesarean deliveries is far higher for Black women than for white women. My delivery was terrifying, and all the more so because Black women have the highest rate of maternal deaths in the US—nearly three times as many as white women.
Monét remembers how extreme her experience was too. After leaving the NICU and heading back to her own hospital room, she had to face the intensity of everything that had just happened. “I had episodes of screaming, crying,” she explains. “[My] hormones were out of control. I just didn’t understand why I was feeling this way,” she says. Thankfully Hazel’s breathing steadied, and Monét recovered too. Once she was feeling up to it, she went back to work. “I went home with her after four or five days in the NICU. Six weeks later, I was taking her into the studio,” Monét says.
In this way, Jaguar II is quite literally a labor of love. The project captures Monét’s cross-genre singing abilities and the writing skills she’s fine-tuned over her decade-long career. In its songs, Monét delves into the thoughts whirring through her mind about self-image and parenthood in the direct aftermath of giving birth. “After I had Hazel, I went into a full depression. I was very hard on myself, and just judging so much and worrying about what I used to look like and what I used to have. It’s just all living in the past, which is the setup [for feeling like a failure],” she says. “[But] you have to think forward. It’s been a battle to be okay with whatever size I am at the time. So if I go to Disneyland with Hazel, I’m not going to be worrying about the churro, because we’re only at Disney one day.”
The album is a full expression of Monét’s point of view as a new mom who is committed to her art and selfhood, and it feels the same way she does in person: warm, inviting, and familiar, like a Sunday family cookout. On “Party Girls,” the album’s first single, she sings about her renewed sense of confidence: “Staring at me too long might get you in trouble / I’m hypnotizing, I’m just talking facts / Nightly, you’ll sight me anywhere you might be.” In essence: Forget living in the past. She’s owning her magnetism right now.
Another single from the album, “On My Mama,” pays homage to her mother, who influenced her love of music. On our call, she recalls seeing her mother confidently groove around the house to music while vacuuming—but Monét’s mother also inspired her as she created the album as a new parent. “[Going back to work with Hazel] made me even thank my mom. I was like, ‘I had no idea. This is what you went through to have me? Thank you so much.’ It just brings a whole other appreciation to every woman in your life, and every woman who has a baby, because it’s like you understand on a whole new level.” Both Hazel and Monét’s mother, L’Tanya Chestang-Cubit, appear in the video for “On My Mama.”
As she recorded Jaguar II, Monét pushed back on the pressure to behave and look a certain way after childbirth, and reflected on being a mom who’s also a whole person. “This project is going to give me the opportunity to solidify my identity outside of motherhood, because I think both are important,” Monét says. “You want to make sure you’re an amazing mom, but you also want to just be yourself as Victoria and stand alone from whatever is going on at home.” This is clear in the lyrics of “On My Mama,” which Monét opens with, “When they say, ‘She get it from her mama’ / I’ma say, ‘You fuckin’ right’ / Body rude, it’s unpolite / Done bein’ the humble type.”
Another aspect of stepping into her own has been writing songs for herself rather than writing mostly for other big names. Monét met Grande in 2013 and worked on the latter’s debut album, Yours Truly, and her career as a hitmaker blossomed from there. “Songwriting was a way that I could get my voice heard and my ideas out there,” Monét says. Now, Monét’s solo music puts her not only out there but front and center. “When I shifted focus [to my own songs], I finally achieved the goals I wanted to as a songwriter. It was night and day,” she says. “It just was a matter of time management and making sure that I’m putting a hundred percent into myself, the same way I would do it for somebody else’s career and work catalog.”
Having Hazel showed Monét she was capable of all of it—writing the album, getting back on the dance floor, and making studio magic out of complex emotional and physical changes. Monét suspects that Jaguar II is just one accomplishment that will come out of what childbirth taught her. “It feels like, ‘Well, if I could do that, there’s probably a lot more that I could do,’” she says. “That’s a nice marker of reality and how strong we are.”
As she discovered, “We can conquer whatever. That’s what we put our mind to. It’s like, baby in hands, breastfeeding, and the studio recording. And it’s just a sign from God—confirmation that we really are the shit.” You can almost picture Monét running up those stone steps, fists in the air and ready for her next win. She’s Rocky, after all—a mom, a daughter, a star, and above all, herself.