Tag Archives: Aaliyah

Brandy the Maddening Cipher: Reviewing ‘Two Eleven’

Brandy's Two Eleven album cover

I wrote this about my hopes for Brandy’s new album when she was in the early stages of promoting it:

The question … is really about whether or not Brandy has a clear sense of what it means to age out of the industry’s target market and how doing so makes her career moving forward a different animal than her career in the 90s – and whether that will inspire her to take a creative leap forward (like she did each time on her middle three albums – Never Say NeverFull Moon and Afrodisiac) or scare her into hiring the latest trendy producers and songwriters to help her get a “hit.”

The thing that made those middle three albums great is that they each communicated something really clear and focused about who Brandy was at that moment in her life, be it the adolescent heartbreak after losing your first love (which we now know for sure was Wanya Morris from Boyz II Men) on Never Say Never or the way Full Moon and Afrodisiac* are a one-two punch of a depiction of Brandy’s struggle to figure out what it means to be a young black woman coming into her own. Even Human, as horribly written and produced as it was, had a unifying theme that makes it a complete album.

Brandy, perhaps more than any of her contemporaries like Usher, Aaliyah and Monica, was an album artist in the truest sense. Those middle three albums continue to resonate not because they generated a monster run of singles but because they are complete listening experiences.

So its frustrating that Two Eleven doesn’t actually communicate anything at all about Brandy at this point in her life. That is, until this moment:

What’s striking about “Music” is that it functions both as a love letter to the thing she loves most – music – and, subtextually, as an admission that she fears that without it she has nothing else to offer. The song is structured like an ode, but the song’s strong undercurrent of melancholy makes it also a plea. It’s that line “millions of people who know me/they see you” that just crushes you and conveys so much about Brandy’s monumental insecurity than anything else she’s ever recorded. In her mind, she and music are tragically one and the same.

It’s the one moment on the album where her desperation – which has been such a big part of the promotional campaign around the album and what I was responding to in my quote above – is turned into a beautiful, genuinely affecting song. There is nothing else like it on the album – and that’s the album’s greatest failing.

The rest of the album is mostly just a loose collection of songs that are poorly written and constructed*, if beautifully sung and arranged in many places. From the inert, plodding “Scared of Beautiful”, which could have been a companion piece to “Music” if it bothered to convey Brandy’s insecurity instead of being maddeningly soulless, to the silly lead single “Put It Down” and the equally inane, unconvincing  “So Sick” and “Slower” to the weird “Hardly Breathing,” which is a perfect example of how beautiful singing and vocal arrangements can only make a bad song’s poor construction shockingly apparent, Two Eleven is an album that misses nearly every opportunity to tell us something about Brandy Norwood at 33.

It’s perhaps too much pressure to put on one song – one that only appears as a bonus track on the expanded edition – but as a result “Music” really then captures exactly what Two Eleven is: an album about a woman who still has no idea who she is.

 

*There are a few very nice moments though: “No Such Thing As Too Late”, “Without You” and “Can You Hear Me Now” (the last of which is another bonus track) are sublime. “Wish Your Love Away,” second single “Wildest Dreams” and “Paint This House” are imperfect but quite lovely in their own ways.

Tigger’s 25 Best Albums of the Aughts (00s), Part 1

The thing that is interesting to me about all the lists I’ve read about music in the Aughts is how little the lists reflect the impact of the internet.  Reading most lists, you wouldn’t think that the industry changed as much as it did.  You’d also think that, reading other lists, that the industry figured out the internet immediately and it became just another promotional tool for them to give you whatever it is they’ve decided is hot music.

Napster started in June 1999, just six months before the new millennium and the music industry has never been the same.  Illegal downloading meant that people could hear an artist’s work before it was done.  They could hear songs that artists never intended for them to hear.  And they could hear multiple versions of a song that ultimately went to another artist (how many people downloaded Posh Spice’s version of Beyonce’s Resentment?).

What this meant is that the single had even less meaning than it did in the past, though the industry and your favorite artist will never tell you that.  Indeed, the minute that iTunes and other online music services offered you the ability to pick which song you want to own, singles just became different animals.  Oh sure, we still had huge singles in the decade that everyone bought and then couldn’t escape for years – Yeah!, Crazy In Love, and Hey Ya come to mind – but the point is, how the consumer interacts with an artist shifted completely.  Many artists began to release as singles album tracks that were buzzworthy on the internet in hopes of increasing sales (Mariah Carey seems to live and die by her message boards, which explains the yo-yoing of her career of late).

It also meant that the industry’s devaluation of the album was complete.  Oh sure, people still buy albums, but with the ability to pick and choose what you want, there was even less incentive for the biggest artists to make albums a complete experience.  More then ever, what we got from corporate artists were three or four “radio singles” and a bunch of lamentable album tracks (you know, the ones that artists like Britney, Rihanna and nem point to as evidence of their “growth” because the songs might have an actual bridge or something).

For me, as a music lover, it was a wonderful time to discover music online I might not otherwise have heard.  I was able to follow the rise of homo hop, get copies of shelved albums by artists like Joi Gilliam and Nicole Wray, get obscure albums by Ricky Bell, LaTocha Scott, and Mark Middleton, and find artists who had been discarded by the industry but were making music on their own terms (Shanice, Smoke E. Digglera and Digital Black from Playa).  And let’s not forget how R&B artists have embraced the “mixtape” concept as a way to put out music that perhaps the label didn’t want you to hear or just to keep their names in your mind (Teedra Moses, Trey Songz, Amerie).

What this meant was that I had something else to compare to whatever it was the industry was throwing at me.  It meant that I didn’t have to fall for the othering of British “phenoms” who were ripping off American Black music unconvincingly.  It meant that I didn’t have to be mired in the industry’s mistaken belief that artists were only as good as the song Rich Harrison, Timbaland, Pharrell, Rodney Jerkins, or whoever gave them.  It meant that what I listened to was more driven by me than the industry.  Great as the 90s were, I was largely at the mercy of the industry.  That is simply not the case anymore – even for consumers (and artists) who live and die by the Billboard charts.

I say all this to say that my list reflects very much my experience with black music in the Aughts.  It is not a list that is designed to rank the biggest commercial albums of the decade and then find creative ways of equating art and commerce.  Which is not to say that there aren’t some obvious choices on here.  But this is my list, not a list that necessarily reflects the perspective of the average music consumer.

You been warned.

NOTE – The list is long, so its broken into two parts.  This post has the first 13 albums.

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Tigger’s Best Songs of 2009

This list represents what I consider to be the 20 best recorded songs in black music this year. You should know before reading that I don’t just consider singles, as singles are such a small sample of what is recorded and released in any given year.

Enjoy!

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Best of the Rest: Playa’s Birthday

Tim's Bio album cover Choosing an album track to highlight from the Playa catalog is stupid hard. They literally have not recorded a single thing that I haven't loved. I initially wanted to highlight an unreleased song, LUST, which surfaced on Black's 2004 solo debut.  Then I thought about the obvious, I-65 or Buggin' Over You, or the less obvious, I Gotta Know (which, trust me, knocks).

But, in the end, I chose this song, Birthday, which appears on the Tim's Bio album, because it highlights a point I've been making for a while: No one makes better use of a Timbaland track than Playa, Ginuwine, Missy and Aaliyah. Part of the reason for this is that the uniqueness of the track was matched by the uniqueness of the songwriting, the singing, and the vocal arrangements, which is all but missing from Tim's post-Ginuwine production. 

Here Playa literally ride this Tim track hard.  The track gives the song a rhythmic element that is often missing from romantic music of this type.  Each vocalist takes time with the words, opening the phrasing up.  Black, in particular, sings the second verse with a restrained intensity that we just don't hear enough these days.  Playa are vocalists who understand intrinsically how to evoke a feeling with every element of a song from the lead vocal, to the arrangements, to the track.  That has never been more evident than on Birthday, which does so much with so very very little.

I could go on and on because – with full disclosure – I don't think there's been a better self-contained vocal group over the last 30 years than Playa.  Such thoughts lead one to gush…but just listen.

More:
Best of the Rest – Full List
Best of the Rest – Explained