Saturday, October 13, 2012

Brandy's "Two Eleven" Hits the Spot

Brandy, Circa 2012
How do you follow up one of the best R&B recordings of the last decade? When Human (Epic), Brandy Norwood's fifth album, released at the end of 2008, it was to acclaim if not sales. Norwood's continued commercial slide owed to a climate that eyed her age (29 at the time) as a "deciding" factor to her relevancy rather than her art.

Human's honesty in its vulnerability made it an easy target for scapegoating, and Norwood, being the sweet, if at times insecure woman she is, bought into it hook, line, and sinker.

The three years separating Human and Two Eleven were filled with speculation. What direction could Norwood take her music in? Desiring a chart score without losing her core (read: adult) audience of 18 years, Norwood had a fine line to walk. A duet with longtime colleague/competitor Monica earlier this year, "It All Belongs to Me," left feelings of fear in the place of anticipation due to its inane nature. Norwood's first RCA outing, Two Eleven takes its name from her birthday and the date her mentor/friend Whitney Houston died.

Norwood requested the assistance of individuals to capture the scene of black music in 2012 and fit it to her. A cross section of the producers and songwriters include: Bangladesh, Chris Brown, Sean Garrett, Dem Jointz, Mario Winans, Danja, The Bizness, Rico Love, Frank Ocean, Mike City, and Warryn Campbell. For those that have been into R&B and hip-hop in the last five years, a bulk of the names on the list will not be unfamiliar. The exciting names to see Norwood bring back aboard were two former Full Moon
(2002) principals (Campbell and City) and Ocean. Ocean already in a big year himself with his debut, his background with Norwood extended to two of Human's shining stars: "1st & Love" and "Locket (Locked in Love)."* Norwood's association with the old and new promised she'd take care of business.

Brandy in Blue
With a surface luster that is haughty, but irresistible, Two Eleven is (almost) all killer no filler in its retrofit of contemporary R&B to the Brandy personae. Norwood's voice, at its most cavernous and cool, saves the obvious commercial contender (currently U.S. R&B #3), "Put It Down." Chris Brown steps from behind the mixing board to drop in a funky rap that didn't clutter Norwood who straddles and guides the burping synth track.

In fact, her voice is the melody of "Put It Down," its additional seasoning making the track bearable to those not keen on Norwood's most chart aimed song thus far.

Elsewhere, Norwood acquits herself to the luxurious and galactic material that uses everything from up front guitar and rippling synth lines, layered versus superfluous. The discernible edge that characterizes the rugged "Let Me Go"  and "So Sick" have their eye on the aggressive sides of Full Moon and Afrodisiac (2004). Closer inspection to the form fitting video game soul of "Slower," courtesy of Chris Brown's production and Norwood's pen, proves Two Eleven as the proper experimental follower to Full Moon in place of Afrodisiac.

The decadent trio of sonic erotica Norwood shares ("Paint This House," "Can You Hear Me Now," "What You Need") might make Janet Jackson envious. The trio position Norwood into tastier waters without reducing her to trash. The only complaint leveled at Two Eleven is that it's too immaculate, a listen to the honey soul of "Music" reveals an icy, detached feeling underneath it. The arctic chill may not bother some, it does immediately set Two Eleven a distance away from Brandy (1994), Never Say Never
(1998), and (of course) Human.

She only gets warmer with two lone numbers, "Wildest Dreams" and "Scared of Beautiful." "Scared," the Ocean/Campbell contribution, is a lovely self-styled duet with herself that Norwood sends into the stratosphere. "Wildest Dreams," the second single, is undeniable with its razor sharp hook of "Ooooh, ne-v-er" snaring ears within the first few moments of play.

"Put It Down" w/ Chris Brown
Directed By: Hype Williams


In all, Two Eleven is a claim for Brandy Norwood as the premier interpreter of her era. Two Eleven also is an anomaly for an artist of Brandy's caliber who readily could have gone into a rightful veteran streak. Somehow, in plunging headfirst into the tepid soundverse of modern R&B, Brandy carved a record that was thoroughly her own and relevant without sacrificing consistency or class. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Deluxe version of Two Eleven reviewed here. *-"Locket (Locked in Love)" only available (physically) on the Japanese pressing of Human or the U.S. iTunes edition. Blue wash photograph of Brandy courtesy of Andrew Bird. For more information on Brandy and Two Eleven, visit foreverbrandy.com-QH]

1 comment:

Tommy said...

Honestly, I didn't care for the track with Chris Brown at all, so I was a little skeptical coming in. However, after a couple of good listens all the way through, I have to say Two Eleven hits the mark for for me, too. Not that I found Human to be a complete disappointment, the songs and the production were all in the right place, but for me there was something about it that felt retrograde, especially coming after Full Moon and Afrodisiac. To me, this album has her sounding progressive in a way she hasn't in quite a while. IMO, this is Brandy back at the forefront doing what she does best.