Although her fans have never forgotten the teen star that broke into the R&B scene years ago, Brandy Norwood feels now is the time for her to revive all the talents she has to offer.
by Steven J. Horowitz // Photography by Miguel Starcevich // Styling by Darius Baptist // Hair by Kim Kimble for Margaret Maldonado // Makeup by Eric Ferrell/dion peronneau L.A.
Brandy is definitely in her zone. Following the release of her underrated, under-promoted 2008 album, Human, the former teen star retreated from the spotlight – a place she’s been centered since her first meeting with Atlantic Records at 15 years old. After several years of personal strife, including sagging sales of Human and severing ties with her recording label, Epic Records, the 33-year-old talent is ready to shed her skin and start anew.
“I think a lot of the struggles I’ve had are what I needed to go through to get to another place,” she says. “Everything is pretty sudden. One day I just woke up and I changed my mind about everything. I felt like I wasn’t fulfilled. I was acting simultaneously with singing as a kid, and I just felt like I have this talent, why am I not using it? Why am I not trying everything and doing everything I can do?” Snapped back to reality after a near four-year hiatus from her solo career, Brandy is back to basics with the upcoming release of her sixth album, Two Eleven, releasing in June. The LP, which features production and writing from Sean Garrett, Bangladesh, Rico Love, Frank Ocean, Drake and Noah “40” Shebib, comes on the heels of reality show stardom with her family (VH1’s Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business) and hand wave appearances at red carpets. Her public standing shrunk; her star dimmed.
But with Two Eleven, a reference to her birthday (February 11th) and the day her mentor Whitney Houston passed away, Brandy is signifying a reinvention of sorts: she’s signed with a new label, RCA Records, shifted out of her comfort zone and is embracing reality. It’s a near confrontational way to reclaim her artistry. “It’s taken a minute for me to really figure out the type of artist that I am, the type of music that I need to sing to reconnect with my audience. I just know with this album, I wanted it to be as honest and as real as possible,” she says. “Sometimes, you can get caught up in wanting to make hits and wanting to get on the radio and performing on everything that’s out there. I just wanted to stay true to who I was. That’s why it’s taken me so long to figure out the right home for me to put my music out there with. Other than that, I wanted my album to represent honesty and clarity and struggle and pain, as well as love, with a different sound and a different edge. That’s what this album is.” Her first steps back into the pop culture arena came with a handholding counterpart. Fourteen years after their chart-rocking, she-for-all “The Boy is Mine,” Brandy and Monica reunited to record the Rico Love-penned “It All Belongs to Me,” the first single from both Two Eleven and Monica’s upcoming album New Life, due in April. On the sassy back-and-forth, the two unite instead of fight, staking materialistic territory in the wake of a breakup (“That MacBook, that shit belongs to me / So log off your Facebook,” they sass on the chorus). For Brandy, the intention was to release a solo single, but opportunity was too sweet to dismiss.
“I was so focused on my project and what I needed to do to get my music back out there, but when an idea like this comes along, this is more than just a song; it’s an event. It’s the reunion of two artists that made history together. It’s bigger than the song itself,” she says. “Of course I wanted to come out first on my own so I can stand on my own two feet, but who knew that this Monica thing would come along? I couldn’t say no to that. That would be stupid.” The duet was more a matter of circumstance than opportunism. When Brandy and Monica paired in 1998, it was during their tempestuous teens, right when their careers were hitting full stride. The song became the best-selling track of that year, and won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. But industry politics turned them on one another. Only once did they grace the same stage to perform the back-and-forth cut: at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It took years of maturity to look past their petty squabble, which was admittedly without a basis, for the girls to woman up. After Brandy left Epic Records in 2009 and resigned with RCA Records in August 2011, she found herself at the same label home as her former foe. The imprint asked her if she would consider doing a collaborative cut with Monica, and after reconnecting with the Atlanta songstress, the wheels started spinning.
“The first time, we didn’t know each other. We just went to the studio and recorded the song. There was no chemistry there, really, because we didn’t really have any time to sing with each other,” says Brandy, who has since filmed a video for the song with Monica and performed the track live several times. The two are in talks to do a summer tour together, though nothing is set in stone. “We would be dumb if we didn’t do a tour. Something has to happen in order for that not to happen, something where you’d have to be like, ‘Oh, they called me to be in Avatar 3. Sorry Monica, I gotta do that movie!’ That would be the only thing that would stop me.”
Important to Brandy was keeping Monica close in the weeks following Whitney Houston’s death. Brandy had maintained a close relationship with the late singer throughout the years, and conversed with Whitney and Monica during Grammy weekend in February 2012. They had just spoken before Whitney retreated to her room, where she soon passed. Management insisted that no questions be asked about the loss of her mentor, but Brandy was quick to reference her, explaining that she was important enough to inspire Two Eleven’s title. “Some of the titles I was working with were Rebirth, Reincarnation, Reinvention, Resurrection… I just felt like Two Eleven describes all of that. It’s the day I was born, and each year, I evolve and change with time,” she says. “It also has a whole new meaning to it because I gained my angel. My icon is my angel now. It’s all tied in there and I just think it best represents who I am and the responsibilities I have moving on.” Shying away from the smooth piano-infused sound of Human, Brandy roughs up her sound on Two Eleven, maintaining the powerful productions of previous records but mashing in genres outside of her comfort zone. “It’s definitely R&B, but it has the crossover appeal. It’s grittier, it’s edgier, it’s just different type of R&B. It’s not your regular smooth, soft with the beat type music,” she describes. “It’s just taking risks and hearing how I sound over different types of music, and I wanted an album that different people can listen to. Not just R&B, but pop and hip-hop. I wanted everyone to have something that they can listen to on this album.”
Part of her evolution comes in the form of the team involved on Two Eleven. Normally, Brandy aligns with a particular producer such as Timbaland or Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins to helm the bulk of an LP, and uses additional beatsmiths to color the gaps. But for Two Eleven, she’s piecing together a versatile offering of “gritty” R&B with pop and hip-hop overtones, working with a spread of musicians to expand her sound. Notable contributions come from Odd Future’s resident crooner Frank Ocean, who previously penned “1st & Love” off of Human under his government name Christopher Breaux. For “Scared of Beautiful,” Ocean lends his writing chops for a deeper cut about a woman coming to terms with her beauty. “His music speaks volumes, and I was able to experience that before everyone else knew,” she says. “I always knew he was really special and I just wanted to see how we could vibe, what we could come up with together in the studio this time around. He’s just a genius. I think his songs have so much substance and so much depth, and you need that on an album as well.” While self-imposed, the hiatus from her solo career came after departing from Epic Records, on which she only released. Brandy took the opportunity to breathe – she’d been active in music for more than a decade – and make her home at a label that would back her recordings and creativity – no questions asked. It’s at RCA where she found her footing – “They would do everything in their power to get my music out there” – and got her musical career back on track. But her creative reemergence also inspired her return to acting. As far back as her early teens, Brandy was a screen diva, holding court on television as the star of Moesha and appearing in films such as 1998’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and 2001’s Osmosis Jones. It took a cameo on CW’s 90210 to get her back into character, followed by recurring roles on Drop Dead Diva and The Game. She doesn’t care for reality television anymore and is entertaining the idea of developing and starring in a scripted series a la Moesha. “That’s where I’m from. I was raised on television. I need to continue to keep that up,” she explains. “It’s just like it was meant to be, for me to get back into it and with developing my own show now, I want a show that represents everything that I am and more, and just take risks and challenge myself to be somebody different than who I am, as well. I’m ready though.” Television paved the way for her foray back into Hollywood. In July, Brandy will star alongside Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Williams and Lance Gross in the Tyler Perry film The Marriage Counselor, where she plays a woman named Melinda. Though she wouldn’t go into specifics about her character, she describes Melinda as “running from a past that’s so hard for her to face.” It’s a familiar circumstance for Brandy, who had spent the past few years coming to terms with future while growing from past hardships.
“It may not be the same exact situation or the same circumstance, but no matter what, pain feels the same in any situation,” she says. “I was definitely having to pull from the most painful experiences that I had to connect with Melinda, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re excited and happy to be doing a movie and working with Tyler Perry.”
With her singing and acting careers in full swing, Brandy looks back on her resurgence over the last year as a blessing. Stating that “positive thinking and including God in everything I do” is the key to success, she’s finally ready to take on new challenges, looking at former mistakes as stepping stones to putting her professional life back on track.
“I’m just excited to entertain and discover more and more about myself, and through these great experiences like doing an album, doing different roles, all of this stuff, it’s just reminding me of why I’m here and why I’m on this planet. I just want to continue to do everything that I’m supposed to do,” she says. “It’s all a gift. I’m just so thankful. I just want to be able to do whatever it is that I’m meant to do. I’m just excited to discover more and more about me, because I forgot. I really forgot. I’m reminded more and more every time I experience things like I’ve been experiencing them over the last year.”