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.

I Still Wanna Ride for Brandy

Brandy Norwood.

There is no other young black artist who still engenders as much goodwill despite not having a hit song in nearly a decade as she does. People really want her to succeed again.

And it looks like Brandy wants to get it right this time too.

Of course, all the black music blogs are focusing on that “I really feel like this is my last chance” remark because it naturally leads one to question whether or not that goodwill everyone has for her might run out if the new album disappoints. I get that, though I think it’s not really the right question.

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Best of the Rest: Keyshia Cole’s We Could Be

The Way It Is album cover For 9 straight tracks, Keyshia Cole’s The Way It Is is note-for-note a perfect embodiment of adolescent heartbreak (nearly matching Brandy’s 10-track run on Never Say Never).

We Could Be is track 8, so its understandable that it gets lost amongst equally impressive material. I almost made the obvious choice of Love, I Thought You Had My Back for its brilliant last 2 minutes (I’m so wrong. I’m so WRONG), but We Could Be is a sly gem. This song stands out from the rest of the album for its relative subtlety.

And it’s all about Keyshia’s more plaintive vocal and a solid hook.  Here the hook functions as the heart of the song and it is different every time you hear it. Keyshia’s adlibs over the second time the hook comes in basically re-write the meaning of the hook, as the song becomes more desperate and pleading from the second verse on.

That there’s no bridge is key. Bridges are often where a song turns. There is no turn here. Keyshia wants ole boy and that’s that, so she forgoes the bridge for a chant-like, We could be friends baby, as the vamp kicks in.

It’s a beautifully written and performed song and should have gotten more attention for these subtle nuances than it did.

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