So much has happened since we last heard from Brandy, the soloist. Not Brandy, or rather Bran’Nu, the rapper as on Timbaland’s 2009 Shock Value II. Not the Brandy that was engaged in rather forced duets with her brother Ray J on The Family Business television soundtrack. Certainly not the fembot masquerading as Brandy on the overproduced robotics of the ironically titled Human; no, Two Eleven represents a return of the Brandy last heard on 2004’s Afrodisiac, a left-of-center, progressive soul project that aged better than it was originally received. That album also predicted—and helped inspire—a future of melodic electrosoul, multi-layered harmonies, and unconventional song structures; helping make Brandy an artist’s artist among many A-listers and aspiring vocalists alike.
So much has happened since we last heard from Brandy, the soloist. Not Brandy, or rather Bran’Nu, the rapper as on Timbaland’s 2009 Shock Value II. Not the Brandy that was engaged in rather forced duets with her brother Ray J on The Family Business television soundtrack. Certainly not the fembot masquerading as Brandy on the overproduced robotics of the ironically titled Human; no, Two Eleven represents a return of the Brandy last heard on 2004’s Afrodisiac, a left-of-center, progressive soul project that aged better than it was originally received. That album also predicted—and helped inspire—a future of melodic electrosoul, multi-layered harmonies, and unconventional song structures; helping make Brandy an artist’s artist among many A-listers and aspiring vocalists alike. Here again, on Two Eleven, Brandy straddles the fence between what is young and current, while trying to keep her older fans and still keeping an eye on the future of R&B. More often than not the young and current wins out, but also more often than not this is the Brandy long time fans have been missing. Welcome back.
On some level for many this review or any review won’t matter. After a prolonged image rehabilitation campaign following the sham marriage and the fatal car accident that tarnished Black America’s Sweetheart’s image, Brandy fans want her to win so badly at this point, want to see her comeback to the top of her game, that she can sing a telephone book and they’d pronounce it genius. In the years since the back-to-back humiliations, Brandy has humanized what was shrouded in gossip and innuendo and endeared herself to audiences all the more. Her reality TV show for VH-1, The Family Business, went a long way for fans who got to see a seemingly unfiltered and alternately strong yet fragile artist on a mission to comeback swinging following the critical and commercial failure that was Human. The strong support for her in the atmosphere may mask some older fans disappointment at her creative decisions to go more Frank Ocean and Miguel than Babyface and Diane Warren. Brandy is still a young woman; having achieved her first #1 R&B hit at age 14 in 1994 with “Baby.” Now at 33, despite being moved enough by Whitney Houston to at least partially name the album after the date of Houston’s death, Brandy’s still not quite yet ready to step into sequined gowns and belt epic David Foster ballads.
But, for those paying attention, Brandy the woman has never been that kind of artist, not once she was old enough to have a say in what kind of material interested her. And the material that interested her for this project is as edgy as it is soft, varied as it is compelling. It should since Two Eleven had close to sixty different songs recorded for it with nearly twenty producers behind the boards in the years since Human, all in an effort to get at just the right kind of material and sound reflecting exactly who Brandy is now and where her music is headed. The 17 tracks that make the final cut (on the Two Eleven Deluxe Edition) may surprise those who didn’t know Rodney Jerkins and Timbaland’s sounds and approaches to Brandy’s music were actually as much Brandy’s as they were theirs in sonics, sound effects, and an unflappable penchant for multi-layered vocal arrangements, particularly on cuts like “Slower.” Despite more than a dozen different producers and countless co-writers on these songs, Brandy never loses her signature identity. She also proves to be more a textured crooner rather than a dramatic belter whose songs always build to climactic finishes. Plenty on Two Eleven keeps the dynamics nuanced and shaded, sometimes privileging lyric, mood and atmosphere over hooks and predictable song structures.
That is not to say that Brandy isn’t dynamic. There is an urgency and a confidence that comes through these technically flawless vocal performances, one that doesn’t always need the effects and auto-tuned sheen with which producers obsessed with perfection occasionally coat her voice. Luckily, it’s not enough production trickery to strip Brandy’s trademark resonance and sultry tone of its humanity, and on the up-tempo club bangers it makes total sense. Some producers, like Mike City on the brilliantly ethereal “Music” and Rico Love on the impassioned ballad, “No Such Thing As Too Late,” realize what they have in the uniqueness of Brandy’s instrument and allow it to just flow unencumbered by heavy production hands. On the powerful “Without You,” producer Harmony Samuels keeps the shadings to Brandy on her background vocals, thumping bassline, and keys oozing more drama than an afternoon soap.
Sometimes the obvious production hand lends an unexpected beauty to the proceedings. Frank Ocean’s languid hip hop soul of “Scared of Beautiful” takes a rare look at the fear that can come in being afraid of one’s own success or even just becoming their best selves (“I’m scared of me/I’m scared of me/I’m scared to be/beautiful”). Urban and radio-ready, Sean Garrett’s “Do You Know What You Have?” is easily one of the top contemporary R&B songs around, spotlighting Brandy’s unparalleled ability to sing with herself with skill and breathy abandon. That heat nearly explodes on the tension-filled, “Wish Your Love Away,” which finds America’s princess cussing up a storm over a lying and cheating man—lending authenticity to Brandy’s claims that this album is autobiographical and deeply personal.
The club bangers here are rare but impactful, not taking their space for granted. I don’t know how the capable but uninspired first single “Put It Down (featuring Chris Brown)” beat out the bouncier and far more intricate “Let Me Go” (which totally flips Swedish singer Lykke Li’s “Tonight” in its interpolations), but I’m sure DJs will correct that label mistake, winning bumping dance floors from coast to coast. Sean Garrett’s moody and constantly shifting art piece, “What You Need,” owes a great debt to a thumping bass and infectious refrains (“baby, I got what you need” coupled with “I’ll be in the kitchen/in your favorite position”—yes, from Brandy) that masks a song whose many transitions may confuse listeners trying to determine if the sexually suggestive jam is a mid-tempo ballad or another banger. Love’s darkly astral “Can You Hear Me Now” makes sure you know Brandy’s good and grown with sexual declarations of how difficult it is to “get her off,” talk of “digging deeper,” and third person references as “mama.”
While “Can You Hear Me Now” is kept from the dustbin of the unmemorable because of its salacious allusions, other under-arranged tunes have plenty to say in story but meander in their musical progression, transitioning to sometimes unsatisfying ends. The metaphorical “Paint This House” is a case study in an interesting lyric neutered by an utterly forgettable treatment. Rico Love takes Brandy back to her Human days with the techno Europop of “Hardly Breathing” which can barely breathe for all the new wave clichés. Formulaic ‘90s radio R&B like the conservative second single, “Wildest Dreams,” and the hip hop nursery rhyme, “So Sick,” benefit from catchy hooks but don’t stick without high repetition.
Accordingly, Brandy’s return is a slick, but uneven one. It is also one in which the artist is clearly and boldly defined. Titled after her birthday, the notable absence of the hit duet with Monica, “It All Belongs To Me,” makes sense in the context of a rebirth project meant to illustrate who Brandy the woman and artist is without the crutches of proven past successes, including those with Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland, Ray J and Monica. This is Brandy now, take her or leave her. We’ll mostly take her. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson