By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Three years ago, Sachse resident Dondria Nicole was a YouTube sensation, pulling in hundreds of thousands of views for the R&B covers she sang, recorded on her computer and posted to the Internet.
Two years ago, then 19 years old, she was primed to be the Next Big Thing, plucked from relative Web obscurity and signed to Jermaine Dupri's Island/Def Jam subsidiary label, So So Def Recordings. Leaks of what was to be her first single, "Can't Stop," were released to the Internet to glowing write-ups.
Last year, though, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a soul who remembered her.
Dupri's label had been dropped from Island's roster. With it, so had Dondria. Her future in music, from the outside at least, appeared in jeopardy.
But, on the inside, things weren't so bad. Almost immediately, So So Def re-emerged as an independent label—granted, one still backed by Dupri, one of the most familiar personalities in hip-hop. And Dondria, along with Atlanta singer Johnta Austin, all of a sudden found herself signed to a roster of two. Suddenly, she was getting half of the attention.
"I don't think everyone at [Island/Def Jam] was really supportive of what was going on," says the 21-year-old. Her career, stalled by the slow grind of major-label machinery, saw an immediate jolt. "Really, as soon as we left—just the urgency and everything—it just changed. Plans went through immediately."
Those plans include tour slots alongside R&B stars Trey Songz and, one of Dondria's heroes, Monica. Just this past Sunday night, Dondria opened for those performers' double-headlining bill at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie. The plans also include this Tuesday's release of Dondria vs. Phatfffat, an album two years in the making and featuring production efforts from two of hip-hop and R&B's biggest and brightest in Dupri and the Grammy-winning Bryan-Michael Cox. With early support from urban radio markets across the country and from BET, which hosted Dondria in July as a performer during the pre-show for its 2010 BET Awards, the album appears primed to be a success.
Since debuting on the charts in late 2009, love ballad and lead single "You're The One" has spent 35 weeks on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, reaching as high as No. 14 on the list. Meanwhile, her recently released follow-up, the bouncy and decidedly harder-edged "Shawty Wus Up," has spent the last five weeks on that same chart, where, at press time, it sits at No. 69, its highest position to date.
Those numbers are no joke. For comparison's sake: Dondria vs. Phatfffat's first two singles have out-positioned the first two singles off Erykah Badu's 2010 release, New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh, "Window Seat" (which, in 24 weeks on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, peaked at No. 16) and "Turn Me Away (Get Munny)" (which, in 13 weeks, has yet to top No. 87 on the list).
Dondria isn't altogether surprised by these figures. With her hundreds of thousands of YouTube fans, she expected a fair share of support. Hell, that was why Island/Def Jam was so interested in her in the first place.
But the R&B singer is quick to properly credit the album and those who helped guide it, too.
"I know this project is something some people have been waiting on," she says. "And not just waiting for me, but for real R&B."
That, ultimately, is what Dondria—specifically with "You're The One"—has on her side. The lead Dondria vs. Phatfffat single is a callback to the R&B of the mid '90s, a sugary-sweet organ- and horn-driven song that lends itself perfectly to Dondria's vocals and confidently stands on its own. Unlike so many other modern-day R&B songs, which all too casually blend elements of hip-hop into an indefinable, cluttered mix (second single "Shawty Wus Up" included), "You're The One," is almost defiant in its stance against that trend. Dondria's aware of this—and, she says, the rest of her album proves her commitment to this direction, landing more often on the R&B side of the fence than the hip-hop one.
"It definitely leans more toward ballads," Dondria promises. "Most of the time, [R&B] is more hip-hop or pop. It's not really real R&B."
And though she concedes that "Shawty Wus Up," with its repetitive backing synth line and sampled vocals, is indeed a diversion from this path, she promises that its release is more experimental than anything else.
"Trying new things isn't weird to me," she says. "But I'm not being trendy. I'm not dancing all over the place."
Nope. These days, Dondria's mostly just dancing with joy, happy that her music has found an audience after having spent far too much time on the backburner.
"Even the most successful artists, when they put out a song or an album, they never know if it'll be a hit," she says, ecstatic with her career's early accomplishments. Road bumps aside, she's finally realized the dream she's always had—and she's done so mostly by doing the same thing she's always done, dating back to the YouTube days of her teenage years.
"I just sing," she says. "And people like it!"