(contains some synopsis by E. Sims)
I have a couple of friends that are about 5-6 years younger than me and when we chat about music, it stuns me how much those few years make a difference. Our perceptions of certain artists and their effect are poles apart. One of those artists is Brandy, who came on the scene in 1994 and quickly took the music world by storm. In a span of just 5 years, Brandy had hit albums and singles, headed a popular TV series (“Moesha”) and starred in a major film (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and highly-rated TV movies alongside the legendary likes of Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Diana Ross (“Cinderella,” “Double Platinum”). She even was immortalized as a doll before it was trendy. She was one of the first, if not the first, young African-Americans to tackle such feats, and that meant the world to people my age. Loved by all with brown skin and braids, when that’s not the standard of beauty? What?! A black “Cinderella” with a multiracial supporting cast? Get out of here! It was kind of a big deal. However, by the time my pals who were born in 1990 and 1991 were age 10 and old enough to vividly remember anything in pop-culture, Brandy’s light had begun to dim. I know and view her as trailblazer, but to some of the younger set, Brandy is just some girl who had a couple of hits back in the day. What happened and how can Brandy regain her footing? Let us attempt to answer that question.
Instant success is usually to the detriment of young acts. It’s emotionally overwhelming being under high media scrutiny and analysis, not being able to enjoy “normal” teenage activities (like the prom) and having to decipher who’s a fake friend or “yes” person when you’ve barely begun to figure out who you are. Not to mention the lures of and unlimited access to drugs, sex and other hedonistic things your average horny, egotistical and impulsive teenager would run with. For Brandy, fast fame was the first thing that brought her down, both professionally and personally. The attention she garnered and the things achieved in 5 years, most artists do in 7-10. In the late 90’s, Brandy was involved in an abusive relationship, was suffering from an eating disorder and ultimately was hospitalized after having a nervous breakdown. It was at that point Brandy stepped away from the lights. Professionally, when you reach your prime so quickly, it creates a catch 22: you become overexposed and run out of gas trying to top yourself, or you take a break at the risk of returning to lost interest. Brandy experienced the latter.
After a hiatus, she released “Full Moon” in 2002; an album she said addressed her abuse. Critically, it was received fairly well; it was praised for its maturity and easy sensual allure, but Rodney Jerkins’ production was censured for being redundant. Jerkins’ part in the inability of Brandy’s career to rebound would expand; it will be revisited later in this article. First single “What About Us” charted 7th on the Billboard Hot 100, the title track charted 18th and “Full Moon” was certified platinum a month after release. I would consider that a success, but it was labeled as a failure in some media because it didn’t match the multi-platinum status her previous records did (ala` Mariah Carey’s “Glitter” soundtrack). Additionally, promotion for the album eventually slowed down as Brandy was surprised to find she was pregnant with her 1st child.
2004’s follow-up, “Afrodisiac,” could’ve kept Brandy’s return rolling, but despite high critical acclaim and a Grammy nod, management issues and shaky promotion arguably resulted in poor single and album performance. None of the singles from the album entered the Billboard top 20, and barely made the R&B top 20. Many of the singer’s fans felt the wrong tracks were chosen as singles. To top it off, plans for a major tour with her contemporary, Usher, fell through. Brandy changed her management and ended her over-a-decade long relationship with Atlantic Records. Some suggest that “Any press is good press” didn’t apply, as 1 month into “Afrodisiac’s” release, producer Robert “Big Bert” Smith (the father of Brandy’s daughter) revealed in multiple radio interviews that he & Brandy pretended to be married to avoid tainting her “clean” image with an out-of-wedlock birth. 2 years later, there was more negative press when Brandy was involved a multi-vehicle crash. Initial news stories stated that Brandy didn’t notice cars in front of her slowed, and she struck the back of a vehicle belonging to Awatef Aboudihaj. Aboudihaj’s vehicle subsequently hit another, slid to the side and smashed into a center divider, where it was hit by yet another car. Aboudihaj died the next day in the hospital. Despite later concluding reports by the California Highway Patrol that Aboudihaj collided with the vehicle in front of her and mashed on her brakes, causing Brandy to crash into her, Brandy was still viciously painted as a murder whose celebrity position “got her off.” Within 2 years, Brandy went from being identified as a singer and actress, to a liar and murderer. Any traction she gained for a return was dismantled.
The 2nd external factor now affecting Brandy is the state of R&B and the industry as a whole. If you didn’t already know, R&B is a strange place where it’s dull and no cares to pay a lot of attention to it. This saddens me because I love the genre. Everyone has different suppositions on how this happened, but as I have submitted before on this site, I think that once R&B married itself heavily with pop & hip-hop, it was over-powered, washed and has now taken a back seat. The problem was not that R&B was mixed with other genres (I’m all for genre blending), the problem was that it didn’t have equal footing when it was mixed. It wasn’t a 50/50 composite. What needs to take place in order for R&B and its acts, like Brandy, to thrive is to again mesh with the mainstream, but have a more dominate, inventive presence. Also, specifically for Brandy, she needs to avoid working with whoever is the hottest producer and collaborate with up-and-coming, imaginative talent. It will be difficult getting record label executives to financially take such a risk, but it will be worth the shot. Well-known and consistently working producers are the most likely to hand-off tweaked or remixed versions of their previous work, consequently making the artists they worked with sound similar or like “copy-cats.” Brandy also needs to find a way to match her musical trademark with the contemporary. My next suggestion might seem like an irrelevant stretch, but maybe it would help Brandy to have a strong theme or signature look for her next project. Symbolism helps an album stick out in the audience’s minds. For example, Taylor Swift using a red microphone every time she performed a song from her “Red” album, or Beyonce’s leotard and glove during her “I Am…Sasha Fierce” era.
Brandy Norwood has a distinctive voice, a unique look, decent enough acting chops, the tenacity to make risky, but necessary business moves and with the exception of “Human,” she doesn’t have a bad record in her discography. The tracks she treaded early on are enough to show that she has what it takes to be a force once more. Eliminate personal strife, bad press and lukewarm business partners and add a solid and creative production and marketing team, it all belongs to her.