Tag Archives: Boyz II Men

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.

Flashback: Black Men United, ‘U Will Know’

 

There are so many small pleasures in this song that grab me. The first time the hook comes in and you hear these amazing voices in harmony. The depth and power of Gerald Levert and Christopher Williams ("it _taint_easayyyy"). The stunning clear tones of Joe and Brian McKnight. The absolutely devastingly beautiful performance of R. Kelly, who takes that moment – "woo hoo" – to let the message sink in.

But it's Raphael Saadiq and McKnight who choke me up every single time:

And then I got stronger
And tired of the pain
That’s when I picked up the pieces
And I regained my name

I love the vulnerability of the couplet- "That's when I picked up the pieces/And I regained my name." It's the heart of the song for me. It's the moment that the song reveals itself to be more than an anthem. It's empathy for black male brokenness makes the whole thing work so that when you hear "you must act like a man" it doesn't feel like judgment. It's recognition. And I regained my name.

The song is hopeful of course, but that undercurrent of profound sadness actually makes its anthemic qualities resonate more deeply. It's literally the struggle to be a whole, healthy black man in song.

Day26 – ‘Made Love Lately’

This song still doesn't really work for me:

 

 

And neither does the video.

I just don't get the vocal production on this song. The guys' voices are digitized on the hook, I guess because they can't blend or the producers don't really care about what it actually means to be a male R&B vocal group. 

When you hear a Day26 song, you here an overly democratic approach to leads where the weakest vocalists (Willie and Que) are given equal weight with the strongest (Brian and Robert) such that the overall effect is to completely undersell any emotion or idea that might be in the song. And because they aren't bothering to harmonize there is no way for them to develop a sound unique to them that will help create in your mind who Day26 is supposed to be.

And that's really the issue here: these guys don't suggest a single image or identity that makes them standout or even interesting. There is no Alex Vanderpool like Boyz II Men or the romantic thug image of Jodeci or the sexual bravado of H-Town or Silk or even the church boy gospelly soul of an Intro or a Playa.

It's clear no one on Day26's team has any vision for what to do with them. And they themselves seem content to sing whatever sounds current enough to chart. It's generic trendy producers working with generically talented men to create … not much of anything.

Recovering Boyz II Men…a lil

Boyz II Men is, unfortunately, tied forever to treacly ballads like "End of the Road" and "I'll Make Love to You*.  And because those songs are responsible for their astronomical success, it is quite fashionable to characterize them as weak balladeers who stripped every ounce of soul from their sound in order to sell tens of thousands of albums.

Not entirely untrue.  But…

…then you watch the sublime Soul Story on VH1Soul, which plays old-school videos for an hour, and are reminded that Boyz II Men did have a lil flavor:

 

 

I mean.  Right?

 

*It's worth noting that their debut album, CooleyHighHarmony, holds up much better (both as an album and each individual song itself) than II…or any of their subsequent albums.  That album alone makes them more than just a great commercial pop group.

Best of the Rest: Silk’s How Could You Say You Love Me

Silk Silk got a raw deal. They didn't have the flash of Jodeci, the soul of Intro or Playa, or the good guy doo wop harmonies of Boyz II Men or Shai. What they did have was a stellar lead singer in Gary Jenkins, whose church-reared vocals dominated every song. Silk's debut album, Lose Control, remains the only full album worth a damn in their catalog. 

But How Could You Say You Love Me, from their self-titled sophomore album, is probably my favorite Silk song.  It's not the best (that distinction is saved for If You), but it's so damn thrilling to listen to.  Gary's skills are on full display. The interplay between his voice and John-John's thinner, plaintive vocal make for a quiet storm masterpiece.

Songs like this don't get made much anymore because (rightly or wrongly) there is a sense that the dramatic elements are telegraphed in such a way as to be ingenuine. I don't necessarily agree with that assessment (at least not all the time). Here though the production is relatively subtle focusing mostly on the keys, allowing Gary's ability to sell any damn thing he's handed.

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