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But that was before she was re-introduced in 2009 to Devon Lee, the eccentric musician and owner of Pal's Lounge who would eventually become her partner in music, business and love. They'd been dating for a while, with no real intentions of making music together, when Devon - who remembers meeting Joi for the first time when he was just 13 through a mutual family friend - played a beat for her that would eventually turn into the raw, avant-garde single "One." That song led to another, and another. A month later, they had recorded a full album.
"We realized that we can completely trust one another in the art," says Lee, former guitarist for the rock band Blackbeard. "I don't think that's something she's had in a long time."
Joi created her 1994 debut, Pendulum Vibe (EMI Records), at 22 with producer Dallas Austin. A native of Nashville, Tenn., Joi Gilliam met Austin through a mutual friend while he was recording in her hometown.
"He and I ended up clicking musically and it was some crazy, creative times," says Joi, who moved to Atlanta in 1993 to continue pursuing music.
Though she failed to break the 100,000 mark in sales, critics agreed Pendulum Vibe was brilliant. Interview magazine even featured her as one of its breakthrough artists of the year.
Then Madonna came calling.
"She wanted to know, 'Who is this? Who produced it? How did this happen?'" says Joi, who ended up hanging out with her for a while during the time, and became the first black model in a major Calvin Klein print ad campaign (alongside Kate Moss and Stella), thanks to Madonna putting in a word for her.
But Joi wasn't interested in pursuing modeling: "'I'm a singer, damnit, not a mannequin! I have to be heard, not just seen!' - this was my strong belief at the time," she says. "It's one of the most immature career mistakes I ever made."
Meanwhile, Austin would go on to produce several tracks on Madonna's 1994 Grammy-nominated album, Bedtime Stories. But when it came time to drop Joi's impressive funk-rock follow-up, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, in '97, the album was shelved because the label folded. When Austin acquired the rights to release it on his own FreeWorld Records, his label also went under before the album could see the light of day. Still, that didn't stop it from becoming an underground classic when it leaked later that year. While the LP became a touchstone for progressive soul, it also was the first in a series of letdowns that plagued Joi's entire career. As the years rolled by, Joi continued to make exceptional music without proper label support or distribution.
It's fitting that Hot Heavy & Bad's 11-track album was recorded in Devon's loft apartment above Pal's instead of an expensive studio. The juke joint of a bar, which has been in his family for generations, is situated comfortably on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Bell Street. It has a storied history, like Joi, whose imprint is felt all over the small space. It creates the perfect backdrop for their artistry.
"He helped me get back in touch with the fearless part of my creativity," says Joi, relishing the fact that Devon's musicianship has remained unscathed by the industry.
Listening to their creation, her excitement makes sense. Guttural, sexy and elegant, the music is sweet tea spiked with moonshine. The bare sensuality of "Enough" and the exotic instrumentation on "Spaniard" are a canvas for Joi's slinky vocals, which remain stronger than ever. Even the imagery is progressive. In the soon-to-be-released video for "One," she plays the role of a dirty debutante, and effectively quells any doubts about whether her signature bold sexuality is still relevant.
"I think everything I've done, at whatever time I've done it was appropriate for that time," she says. "When I was younger, would I be topless and have on pasties on stage? Absolutely. Was that appropriate then? Yes! I was in my 20s; I was wild, figuring it out. Would I pull my boobs out now on stage? Probably not. But will I still do something that makes me feel good and allows me to be able to express and exude the kind of energy I want to exude? Hell yes."
That unrestricted energy has translated into music that's been liberated from commercial pressure. "It reminds me of when I first heard her," says longtime friend and fellow musician Anthony David, who's also previewed her new stuff. "Ain't nothing else like it out there - again."
Joi's new work automatically draws comparisons to her early years, when record labels simply didn't know how to market her out-of-the-box sound. After touring and contributing to TLC and every OutKast album, it seemed as though she would finally break through when her friend Raphael Saadiq asked her to replace Dawn Robinson as front woman of his group Lucy Pearl, which included A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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