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Sugar & Pepper: 20 Years of Brandy Norwood

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The gospel grace of Aretha Franklin; the black-pop precision of Diana Ross; the offbeat jazz fusion tones of Randy Crawford. These are just three Venusian figures within the miscellany of the black music experience. Women of color have always stamped music, both R&B and beyond, with a unique blend of expression and talent. In particular, one young woman hit the ground running 20 years ago and embarked on a career that has defied expectations.

Brandy Norwood’s wide-eyed enthusiasm was the right thing for the right time. Fifteen years young in 1994, Norwood perfectly perched herself between television breakthroughs (Thea, Moesha) and a (then) burgeoning music career. Inspired by the definitive African-American Princess archetype―later her mentor and friend―the late Whitney Houston, Norwood was the girl next door for the 1990s.

Brandy Map RC1

While there have been attempts at gauging the artistic mettle of her musical abilities, the scope of her discography is undervalued due to its diminutive appearance―Norwood has released six original albums to date.

Yet, over the course of those six albums―that have moved 30 million units worldwide―Norwood’s commitment to quality over quantity is unquestionable. Mindful of established soul traditions, but shrewdly navigating trends, Norwood has been both the “Tomorrow Woman of R&B” and a vocalist on the precipice of icon status.

Underneath whatever sonic raiment Norwood has donned, her mystique, sensitivity and unmistakable voice have driven some of the finest R&B recorded.

On Top of the World: 1994-1999

Norwood’s eponymous Atlantic Records debut appeared second in line behind Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number (Blackground/Jive, 5/25/94) and Monica’s Miss Thang (Arista, 7/18/95). Whereas Aaliyah and Monica’s debuts were crafted by larger-than-life producers―R.Kelly and Dallas Austin respectively―Norwood went boutique with primary production duties handled by Keith Crouch. Despite Crouch not having the same platinum scorecard that Kelly and Austin had, his resume (up to that point) did include El DeBarge, Caron Wheeler, and Boyz II Men.

Norwood’s gamble with Crouch paid off when Brandy dropped on September 27, 1994. The album spun off hit after hit: “I Wanna Be Down,” “Baby,” “Best Friend,” and “Brokenhearted.” Each of the singles boasted the sound of the day, a mixture of hip-hop beats, jazzy programming and rhythmic melody. On top of it all, Norwood’s texture enlivened the tracks with energy and maturity.

Far from a singles vehicle, Brandy possessed strong album fare; the peak of that material could be heard on the exuberant “Sunny Day.”

Brandy94In the interim between Norwood’s first and second records, she participated in the blockbuster soundtrack companion to the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale. Norwood’s contribution extended to the bubbly, but pensive “Sittin’ Up in My Room.”

Norwood’s artistic trajectory had caused her to intersect with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and his production clique. The pairing of Jerkins and Norwood proved to be creatively, and commercially, fortuitous; with a brighter sonic palette Norwood’s vocal hues really glowed. Off the back of the super-powered duet with Monica on “The Boy Is Mine” (the title track of Monica’s sophomore LP), Norwood unleashed her second album Never Say Never on June 9, 1998.

Norwood commented in an April 1998 Vibe interview―tellingly―about her perspective on romance, “I’m in love for what I know love to be.” Songs such as “Angel in Disguise” and “Put That on Everything” grasped an atmospheric take on love despite her age. That tightrope walk between reality and escape continued to inform Norwood’s best songs about the evergreen topic. Norwood wasn’t all broken hearts as heard on the vibrancy of “Top of the World” (featuring Ma$e) and “Happy.”

As an album, Never Say Never was (mostly) satisfying from start to finish. Excusing the adult contemporary pop syrup in her more-than-competent cover of the Bryan Adams staple “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” Never Say Never appealed to a variety of audiences.

Grammys and other musical accolades followed in the wake of Never Say Never’s platinum returns―five times in the United States. Norwood continued to make headway into acting with Moesha’s continued success. Her film credits ballooned by the decade’s end with Cinderella, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and Double Platinum.

Turn It Up: 2002-2004

Entering her second decade, Norwood continued unabated with her third long player Full Moon on March 5, 2002. The first taste of the record―the mecha-mover “What About Us?”―forecasted that Norwood’s music was edgier now. Paired again with Jerkins and his team, Norwood was also joined by new faces (Warryn Campbell, Mike City) and a familiar friend (Crouch).

Strung taut between plush balladry and uptempo R&B, Full Moon staged Norwood’s abilities over a wealth of sounds. Particularly the mentioned uptempo R&B was spiked with garage (“All in Me”), hip-hop dance (“I Wanna Fall in Love”) and electronica (“Can We?”). Norwood’s voice had taken on an even deeper mahogany tint as the titular piece suggested, lending the ballads an evocative air. Whether sensual on “Like This,” despairing on “Apart,” or full of wonder on “Wow,” Norwood’s music maneuvered from girlhood to womanhood. 

BrandyFMFull Moon’s commercial longevity was shorter than her two preceding albums; critically Norwood remained in the good graces of the public. Not long after the album’s release, Norwood announced her pregnancy and courtship with Robert Smith.

In the year that separated Norwood’s third and fourth projects, a host of personal and professional changes occurred. It would have been assumed that those changes could have acted as a catalyst for Norwood to resume her songwriting forays – she had begun writing as early as Never Say Never.

Afrodisiac, released on June 29, 2004, sought to mirror Norwood’s recent journeys, as she stuck to her interpretive powers primarily. It was her first album departed from the Darkchild fold. Norwood teamed with her peer Aaliyah’s beatmaker Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley and a young upstart named Kanye West. At a succinct 12 cuts, Afrodisiac was Norwood’s second foray into the realm of black dance music, though her slower songs were still prominent. There was plenty to engage listeners with the throwback soul of the singles “Talk About Our Love” and “Who Is She 2 U.” However, the lean nature of the record emphasized the strong (“How I Feel”) and weak (“Necessary”) work present.

The risky recording―that hinged its likability on the respective listener―heralded Norwood’s final release with Atlantic Records. Despite its hushed commercial reception, Afrodisiac was a fair transitional piece. A contractual “best of” followed in 2005.

The Definition: 2008-Present Day

Out of adversity, Norwood’s greatest musical accomplishment emerged. Human, released December 9, 2008, was Norwood’s first recording to conceptually balance itself, start to finish. The long player also introduced a short-lived tenure with Epic Records. Norwood rekindled her relationship with the Darkchild imprint and tasked alongside Midi Mafia, Dapo Torimino, Esthero, Natasha Bedingfield, Chase N. Cashe, and two emerging talents―Frank Ocean and Bruno Mars. With this crew assembled, Norwood’s backdrops were tastefully up-to-date (“Piano Man”) and jaw dropping (“A Capella (Something’s Missing)”).

BrandyHumanThematically, Human presented Norwood at her most reflective. Deconstructing the idea of “self” and how we are all tied to one another in a cosmic scope, Norwood kept this spiritual approach relatable. The warmth that underscored “Right Here (Departed),” “Camouflage” and “Fall” sprung from a unification of lyric, vocal and arrangement―“Fall,” along with the title track, was co-written by Norwood herself. There were “general” love songs to indulge in too with the atomic valentines “1st & Love” and “The Definition”―the latter could only be described as “classic Brandy.”

Not that Norwood’s previous four albums were fluff, but Human was considerably conscious raising. As a result, the album did not have the broad chart reach of past affairs. Truthfully, Norwood’s commercial hiccup could be traced back to Full Moon, but blame was laid at the feet of this misunderstood masterpiece.

Three years passed before Norwood returned to music and her other passion, acting. Two Eleven―Norwood’s RCA Records debut―appeared on October 12, 2012. The same year, Norwood secured a role on the sports-drama television show, The Game. Norwood’s sixth album drew its nom de guerre from her birth date. Additionally, it was the same date that her mentor and friend Whitney Houston would pass away on (in 2012).

Two Eleven acted as a contemporaneous, sometimes icy conduit for Norwood. Production muscle came courtesy of Mike WiLL Made It, Sean Garrett, Danja, Bangladesh, The Bizness, and Chris Brown. The LP also saw the surprise return of Norwood’s previous collaborator Mike City on the sweet and low “Music.” Elsewhere, Norwood’s (tasteful) erotic explorations electrified on “Paint This House,” “Can You Hear Me Now?” and “What You Need.”

The requisite hit of the set fell on the shoulders of the brash-and-bold “Put It Down,” which features a playful Chris Brown. The second (and final) single from the record, “Wildest Dreams,” has become Norwood’s most underrated single thus far.

Currently, Norwood stated that tentative work has begun on her seventh album. The intervals between albums for Norwood are something of a wait; the resulting product makes the distance between albums worthwhile. With six albums across two decades, Brandy Norwood has put her soundprint on the black female interpretive model. From Beyoncé to John Frusciante (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), many have been influenced―and touched―by Norwood’s blend of innocence and experience.

Norwood once proclaimed that “I’m a storm that’s rising, getting stronger with every hour.” As her discography attests, Norwood will continue to rise in her strength and stature for years to come.

Header artwork courtesy of Travis Müller.

 

 

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About Quentin Harrison

Quentin Harrison is a Dayton reared and (for now) Atlanta based writer. Writing for eight years, his works have appeared in the Dayton City Paper and reissued CDs for Big Break Records, Gold Legion, and Soul Music Records. Quentin runs The QH Blend (http://theqhblend.wordpress.com/) where his thoughts on music can be found. Quentin considers himself to be the Charles Barkley of pop music commentary.
  • Joshua Stallings

    Brandy will forever be the most talented yet underappreciated artist to ever live. With the raspiness of her voice and the runs and harmonies there is a reason why she is titled the “vocal bible”. A true artist and inspiration, I will always be a fan, since ’94.

    • Rockbird

      I also think she’s a damn good rapper. Too bad her brother didn’t support her in it. Maybe he was just scared she was better at it. :)

  • B. Ryan

    Brandy is LEGEND