Brandy Norwood 6.0: She will always be a hit maker
From I Wanna Be Down to Moesha to Cinderella to reality TV and back, Brandy has had varying levels of success for nearly 2 decades. So, would it be presumptuous of me to assume that everyone (or at least all 20-30 somethings) has a fond Brandy memory? Let me take you on a journey through the perfecting process that has brought us Brandy 6.0.
Version 1.0 – The Introduction
Brandy’s first introduction to the world was in the short-lived 1993 sitcom Thea in which she played the sassy Danesha. Concurrently, she was hard at work recording her debut album Brandy. The show received meager ratings and was not picked up for another season. However, her album was released the following year, and it went on to sell over 6 million units worldwide. She burst onto the music scene with hits like I Wanna Be Down, Baby, Best Friend, and a remix to Brokenhearted featuring Wanya Morris from Boyz II Men. Steadily growing her presence for over a year, Ms. Norwood became known for her trademark braided hairstyles, sweet personality, and girl-next-door appeal. She had just enough urban appeal to appear fresh and cool while being tame enough not alienate parents.
Jumping off of her album’s success, Brandy was granted her own sitcom Moesha on the now defunct UPN network. It was well received, becoming the highest rated show on the network and speaking on a wide-range of current issues faced by teens. The show only helped to build Brandy’s brand.
She was featured on the Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack with the single Sittin’ Up In My Room and she received a Grammy nomination for her contribution to the song Missing You with Tamia, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight from the 1996 film Set It Off (coincidentally, she notably turned down the role of Tisean Williams in the 1996 film in an effort to maintain her clean image and the role was eventually filled by Kimberly Elise, Source). Her star continued to grow as she was hand-picked by Whitney Houston (her childhood idol) to star in a multi-cultural 1997 TV version of Cinderella for ABC, technically making her the first African-American Disney princess. Yes, before there was Princess Tiana, Brandy was living the dream through Disney magic. And the following year, she starred in her first feature film, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.
My Review: During this era, Brandy was taking the world by storm. Every time you turned around, there was a new Brandy project. And at the same time, you could see that she was still just a wide-eyed teenager at heart. Her admiration of Whitney Houston was unceasing. She was open about her serious stage-fright. Everybody knew someone like Brandy in their life … only this girl was a superstar.
Version 2.0 – Taking Over the Airwaves
That same year, Brandy released her second album, Never Say Never, led by the single The Boy Is Mine with Monica. The single became the most successful song from a female duo ever, staying on top of the Billboard 100 for 13 weeks and receiving a Grammy in the category for best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.
The album has been hailed as Brandy’s landmark work, mainly due to the signature sound she created with Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins and the depth of personal experience she imbued into the compositions. The songs on the album were put together in a way that produced a continuous sound, with one song leading directly into another, that primed it for continuous listening. It also spawned the hits Angel in Disguise, Almost Doesn’t Count, Top of the World featuring Mase, U Don’t Know Me (Like U Used To), and the Diane Warren penned Have You Ever.
My Review: This was my favorite Brandy era. I think that she really got in touch with some deep emotions and was able to emote through every song on the album. Her voice had also clearly matured from the last album, and her confidence had seriously grown. And when she released Have You Ever, she was able to reach true diva status. On this album, Brandy was able to flex her vocal muscles and establish herself as a serious artist.
Version 3.0 – Fall from Grace
In 2002, Brandy was at the top of the world with top-selling albums, a Grammy, and a string of successful acting projects. And with the highly anticipated release of her third studio album on the horizon, she was primed for continued success. And her image began to evolve; the trademark braids were gone, and for the first time, Brandy went for a sexier look. In an effort to present a stronger, more mature Brandy, the first single What About Us? took a decidedly more aggressive musical direction.
Sadly, the album that many fans proclaim to be her best, 2002’s Full Moon, also marked the beginning of a downward trend in her career. Moesha was cancelled after its sixth season, on a cliffhanger no less. And when she unexpectedly became pregnant, she lied about being married in order to preserve her image. The pregnancy and birth were chronicled on the MTV series Diary Presents: Brandy — Special Delivery. Though she maintained the lie until 2004, the world at large struggled to believe the convenience that the two had a secret marriage that she referred to as a “spiritual union”.
My Review: Brandy was really able to evolve on the Full Moon project. Her vocal ability continued to grow and she was able to mature without shocking her fans. She allowed us to grow with her. It was just very unfortunate how her career took a turn. It was very obvious that she was lying about being married before she got pregnant, and it was sad to see her try to maintain such an obvious lie. Despite all of that, entering into motherhood forced Brandy to become more of an adult. And that only helped to deepen her artistry.
Version 4.0 – Searching for Self
On her next album Afrodisiac (her first foray away from her partnership with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins) Brandy tested her versatility by working with producer Timbaland, something she had wanted to do dating as far back as her first album. Her sound leaned even more urban and edgy than her previous work. Led by the single Talk About Our Love featuring Kanye West, she continued her efforts to present an image of a strong, mature woman.
Unfortunately, the album seemed ahead of its time, yielding disappointing sales numbers. In addition, a publicized managerial dispute with Benny Medina sparked controversy around the project. Her second single Who Is She 2 U failed to make a big splash on the charts.
My Review: This album was very critically-acclaimed and it was well deserved. Brandy really took chances here, and the result was glorious. From I Tried to Focus to Necessary to Should I Go, Brandy experimented with sound and vocal delivery in a way that was both intriguing and groundbreaking. Even though this wasn’t a great commercial success, it was a triumph for musical progression.
Version 5.0 – Rebuilding Brandy
In 2006, she became a judge on the inaugural season of America’s Got Talent to positive reviews, and she was slated to return for the second season. However, Brandy decided to leave the show due to her involvement in a fatal car crash. The crash that occurred on December 30, 2006 resulted in the death of one driver. For the part that she played in the accident, Brandy felt deep responsibility, faced years of litigation, and fell into depression over the 2 years that the story played out in the media.
Brandy reemerged from the tragedy with her 2008 album Human, reuniting with Rodney Jerkins for the bulk of the album. Brandy’s most personal and vulnerable album to date, much of the urban leaning she had taken recently took a back seat to her personal struggles in life and love. Her musical choices take a much more adult tone in the work, instead of the experimental route she had become known for recently.
The lead single, Right Here (Departed), and the second single, Long Distance, both had moderate success, but unfortunately, this album also failed to be broadly received.
One song worthy of note, though not released as a single, is her near a capella song Something’s Missing. The song features Brandy’s vocals as the prime source of the backing music. Using this methodology, Brandy achieves a beautiful layering of her voice. Truthfully, this song epitomizes Brandy’s organic sound. Anyone who loves her style knows this song my heart.
In 2012, she debuted a new family reality TV show Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business on VH1. The show lasted for 2 seasons, but it did little to expand her brand or give fans hope of a comeback since the vast majority of her scenes centered on family struggles, clashes with friends, and her time on Dancing With the Stars. It seemed like for every step she took toward success before, it was slowly eroding away.
My Review: A lot of people were let down by this album, but I thought it was gorgeous. Brandy was like an open book. I wouldn’t call it her best work, but once again, her vocals were noticeably even more mature. This was also the first time where I really saw Brandy as a full-fledged adult. I give her all the kudos in the world for taking on the tragedy in her life and having the courage to put it on wax. Other album standouts included The Definition and True.
Version 6.0 -Brand New Brandy
Now, Brandy is giving it another try. Her first step was acting, landing roles on 90210, Drop Dead Diva, and The Game. She will also be a part of the cast for Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, to be released to theatres in early 2013.
Next, Brandy reunited with Monica for the single It All Belongs To Me, a song to be featured on both of their albums. Coined as a loose sequel to The Boy if Mine, the pair now take a more “grown woman” stance in managing a cheating boyfriend. The song peaked at 23 on the Billboard 100 chart.
Lastly, Brandy put all of her effort into her new album, Two Eleven. The first official single, Put It Down featuring Chris Brown, has peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and the video, directed by Hype Williams, presents Brandy in a flashy, youthful light. She even brought back her trademark braids for a bit of nostalgia.
And her recently released second single Wildest Dreams feels like a culmination of all of the different “Brandys” that have appeared on her previous albums. The sound is fresh, the content is personal, and her delivery is deeply emotional.
So, with the big promotional push chugging along, the big question is: Is it too late?
The key to her success has always been twofold: having the right music and keeping her content authentic. The main reason that fans have followed her career for nearly two decades has been because they identify with her within her music.
Each album that she has produced has also been a snapshot of her life at that time. First, she was a young girl dealing with teenage emotions. Then she discovered heartbreak. On Full Moon she was becoming a woman and on Afrodisiac she was taking chances and exploring who she was as a person. Next, she dealt with understanding the human experience. If Brandy can let us into her life again, her fans will follow.
My Take: In my humble opinion, Brandy has a timeless vocal instrument that will always have the ability to be relevant and popular. As you have probably experienced by listening to any of the tracks above, Brandy’s voice is like vocal crack. It is highly addictive. And just think about all that she has accomplished: first African American Disney princess, a Grammy, a television show that ran for 6 seasons and 127 episodes, a film career, 7 Billboard Music Awards, Platinum singles and albums, reality shows … the list just goes on and on. She is a vocal beast. She is a trailblazer. She is a legend. And it is a crime that she does not always get the respect that she is due.
It completely baffles me that she is not still reigning as a queen atop the charts. With all of the low talent “singers” that seem to so easily produce hit after hit, I just have to question what has happened to our standards. Just how low is the lowest common denominator?
My hope is that she can transcend the obstacles that have stifled her career and rise to the top again. I am in love with the music that she has put out so far in this era, and more than anything else, I think she has the right attitude. She knows that she has hard work ahead, she understands what the current climate, and she seems to have a very pointed plan to make serious impact in the industry.
Expectations will be unavoidably high, and with the current state of the industry, it is difficult to be able to definitively say that any album is successful unless it is a worldwide phenomenon. But no matter what I think, the real deciders here are the consumers at large. I’ll be buying .. will you?
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