Of all the sweet and sultry teen sensations that dominated R&B in the 1990s (Monica, Mya, and the late Aaliyah, to name a few), Brandy’s star shone the brightest. Thanks to a successful sitcom (Moesha), highly-rated tele-films (Cinderella, Double Platinum) and a string of platinum-selling CDs, the McComb, MS native parlayed her cute, yet coy, demeanor into a worldwide fan base, earning multiple awards (including a Grammy), first-name-recognition-status and the admiration of young girls everywhere. She was a young woman who had it all, and the fact that she took her family into the spotlight with her---former gospel artist and choir director father, Willie Norwood, tax preparer mother-turned-manager, Sonja, and her younger brother, Ray J----only enhanced her wholesome image.
However, a tumultuous series of events in her personal life dimmed that brilliance: label and management changes, single motherhood, a pseudo-marriage, broken engagement and of course, the wrongful death car accident lawsuit that she settled in 2009. In an effort to ease back into the public eye, Brandy eschewed the recording studio for the small screen, appearing on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and then, in her second reality TV series, Vh1’s Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business. The built-in drama that’s inevitable when stars display their lives on-and-off-camera has been great for ratings, but that same energy translates less smoothly on its accompanying CD of the same name.
As the acknowledged superstar, Brandy’s presence is the most prominent and her vocals have ripened with time: she’s a co-writer, an executive producer and performs on four of the ten tracks, including its first single, the delicately nuanced “Talk To Me.” Featuring Ray J, but mostly coming across as a tender duet between father and daughter, the trio’s verses swirl around one another and transmit loving memories about the joy of children and a father who always made time for their dreams. “I Don’t Care” could be about a river-deep, mountain-high love, but given her rocky romantic past, Brandy’s pre-teen daughter, Sy’rai, is its most likely subject. “Lifeguard,” the best of them all, is a sophisticated mid-tempo to which Brandy didn’t contribute lyrics, but its vulnerability and wisdom could’ve been chiseled out of her experiences from the last few years, showing resolve as she throws in the towel on a fading relationship: “It’s like a joy to get a “hey Baby” from you, I don’t know, what happened to you and I/Cuz’ I don’t wanna be the one living with regrets/ thought about it and finally I’m taking my deep breath/ before I step outside of you tonight….”
Except for the bittersweet number, “Gone,” which is sung by Tasha Scott (the spelling of the name doesn’t match, but the vocals sure sound like LaToscha Scott from Xscape), the rest of the CD fumbles around between ‘hit’ and ‘miss’: Ray J’s contributions, “Ready To Roll” and “Turnin’ Me On,” seem to exist only as reinforcement of his infamously-earned lady-killer image and are too overloaded by Auto-Tune to showcase his true vocal ability, as is the TV show’ theme, “Family Business.” “My Family,” performed by Brandy’s daughter Sy’rai and the girl’s half-sister, Rain, is cute and upbeat, but doesn’t offer much appeal to adult listeners; and the tracks sung by Willie Norwood, “Sonja, Sonya, Sonia,” and “Home Grown,” as capable as his range is, are still sappy and self-conscious (guess which one is which?).
If you’re a fan of the VH1 series, then there are gems on this CD that will deepen your appreciation for the bond that the Norwoods have maintained under the glaring spotlight. Otherwise, those waiting for what Brandy and Ray J are cooking up next (pending solo and duet releases) will simply regard this collection as a passable distraction. Cautiously Recommended.
By Melody Charles