Even without makeup and her signature funky heels, people can't help but stare at Joi. Dressed in nameless jeans and a simple, form-fitting top, her long braids swept up high on her head and accented by a gardenia, she baby-sits a glass of riesling at the Grape in Atlantic Station. While the sparse crowd likely has no idea that an underground legend is in their midst, that doesn't stop Joi from being the main attraction.
The waiter seems captivated, too, as he needlessly strides over for what seems like the umpteenth time to make sure she's OK. She's fine, she tells him, with a reassuring smile that's part Lady Day, part Eartha Kitt.
Joi's the type of woman who's hard to miss. She's got the shape of a gazelle, the face of a cherub, and, perhaps unknown to patrons of the Grape, a voice that kills. Despite these God-given gifts, she's also an iconic musician who, despite having influenced Atlanta's current crop of stars in everything from sound to fashion to showmanship, was never properly appreciated by the music business.
Since the start of her career in 1994, Joi has always been on the verge of stardom. Championed by the likes of producers Dallas Austin and Raphael Saadiq, crowned first lady of the Dungeon Family, and considered Madonna's one-time arbiter of cool, the recurring twists of fate that have kept her from enjoying widespread industry success almost seem more conspiratorial than coincidental. After 15 years, not even Joi can begin to explain the one thing her fans still can't figure out: Why the hell hasn't she blown up yet?
"I don't think there's any one reason in particular," she answers, a soft sigh escaping her. "That's the only thing that I know for certain. I really try to judge [my music] by its worth and the beauty of the creation. I have to, because if I had to judge it by hard numbers, then I would feel like a failure. And I don't feel like that."
Of course, the more pressing question - with the debut of her first album in four years only four months away - is whether or not this time will be any different. After being considered ahead of her time for the bulk of her career, could it be, as Joi approaches 40 and prepares for her newest incarnation, that she's too late?
She shrugs, but her shoulders are heavy. It's a quandary that she's clearly given a lot of thought to throughout her tumultuous career. She's arguably the most pivotal - if not the first - artist to arrive on the alternative soul scene, directly influencing acts ranging from Erykah Badu to OutKast to Janelle Monáe. With a sound and style that was all her own and a stage show that dripped with sexuality, she was instantly ripe for the picking.
"A lot of her style was duplicated," says local promoter J. Carter, a friend for nearly 10 years, who co-owned Sugarhill in Underground Atlanta, where she hosted a weekly Tuesday Jam before the venue closed last year. "She was a matriarch for a period of time with regards to music."
Despite her cult following and the praise that she receives among the industry's elite, she still has yet to achieve the requisite measure of success or mainstream attention.
For the past four years in particular, she's worn the unofficial crown as Atlanta's underground queen, due to her Sugarhill stint and an ongoing weekly Saturday set, "Futuristic Throwbacks," at historic Pal's Lounge on Auburn Avenue. As the name suggests, the Saturday night gig breathes new life into standards, as Joi commonly moves from cooing the Delfonic's soulful "Hey Love" to pushing out a rocker's scream for the Eagle's "Hotel California."
But Joi's focused on the future right now, namely the material she's been cooking up with Hot Heavy & Bad, the newly christened band she helms with her boyfriend Devon Lee.
"I think people who like what I do will love this project," she says. "It's me evolving in my art. In such a huge landscape of mediocre saturation, I think it's a nice bright light. It's pure, it's honest, it's raw - it's what I do."
After spending a lot of energy throwing up the middle finger at a narrow-minded music industry that just didn't get it, she hopes to bury the grudge once and for all with Hot Heavy & Bad. "I'm kind of at a crossroads yet again on trying to figure out the best way to get the music out there and get it heard," she says.
Just a year ago she was contemplating kicking rocks and heading to L.A., where she says the work is steady, unlike Atlanta, which she believes is struggling to hold on to its cultural soul. (She even considered pursuing a degree in psychology, she laughs, because people view her as "almost a sensei or an oracle.")
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