I’m rather opinionated about music. Folks know this.
And while all that frustration criticism comes through loud and clear when I write or tweet, I’m definitely not as good at communicating that I understand and respect how profoundly difficult making music really is.
“Producers these days are lazy. Making tracks. Sending emails. I’m just saying. When you make music under the same roof, with the actual artist that you’re working with, everybody is praying together, eating together, laughing together. It’s a different kind of nuance that’s created around music.” (emphasis mine)
I do think there’s something profoundly special about the music that can come from songwriters, producers and artists spending time together crafting music that the artist feels a close connection to because that artist has had some input into making it, but with that understanding comes a deeper understanding that I think critics of black music don’t articulate nearly enough: what Tyrese longs for is the exception in the music industry, not the rule, particularly with black popular music.
In other words, a lot of people aren’t afforded the luxury of getting into a room with the best songwriters and producers and creating something that they can feel has the personal touch because that’s not the kind of artist they are intended to be, whether they know it and acknowledge it or not. We should be honest about this fact.
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 Never, Full 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.
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.
Most people who read me or know me know that I was pretty underwhelmed by most black music released this year. I do think this was a stronger year for individual songs than it was for albums, but even so I could literally only come up with 10 songs that I really love, that I played a lot, that I repped for hard this year.
Before we get to those though, here are a few runners-up. These are songs I like, that are good in their own way, but didn't quite bowl me over the way the top 10 did for one reason or another.
Anwar Robinson, “Come Over”
EPMD, “Don’t Get Clapped”
Frank Ocean, “Back”
JLS, “Shy of the Cool”
Johnny Gill, “In the Mood”
LastO ft. Stern Savage ,“The City”
Van Hunt ,“What Were You Hoping For”
Teedra Moses, “To Hell Wit It’
Mobb Deep ft. Nas, "Dog Shit"
Jazmine Sullivan, “Fly & Sexy”
Lalah Hathaway, “Small of My Back”
Common ft. Nas, "Ghetto Dreams"
After the jump, get into the 10 songs that I adored this year.