Thursday, August 27, 2009

IN PRAISE OF BRANDY

Last night I was talking to the friend of a friend about two of my favorite things: movies and music. Cinematically speaking, we had very little in common, though I give him props for knowing my four favorite movies (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Dangerous Liaisons, Interiors and Pillow Talk). He worships at the altar of fantasy and sci-fi (Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, etc), and as anyone who's met me well knows, I rarely ever go there. But musically, our tastes overlapped significantly. Of course, there were the usual suspects whom so many with-it gay men adore: Bjork, Annie Lennox, PJ Harvey. But one name popped up and caught me completely by surprise: Brandy.

Before Katy vs. Gaga, Amy vs. Duffy, Chris vs. Adam, David vs. David, Ruben vs. Clay, Britney vs. Christina (but well after Madonna vs. Cyndi and the Beatles vs. the Stones), there was Brandy vs. Monica. At the time, I gravitated toward Monica's side of the fence because I generally root for the underdog. But while Monica's tunes now sit in my iPod library collecting dust, it's the songs from Brandy's trilogy of spectacular albums -- Never Say Never, Full Moon and Afrodisiac -- that I keep coming back to. The latter is, in my honest and humble opinion, the best R&B album of the '00s, and this is the one that my conversation partner and I took pause to drool over.

I spent a morning with Brandy in 1994 when she was 15 years old. I was working for People magazine at the time, and it was her first interview with a major national publication. At one point, we passed by a record store where advertisements for all of the hot new releases were displayed in the window. When Brandy noticed that her album wasn't among those represented, she complained to her mother, Sonja, who was also her manager, and later cried when recalling her tough decision to leave her career to manage her daughter's music career. Sonja's stern reply: "We will certainly get to the bottom of this." A diva, I thought, was born. And one with the platinum sales to back up the attitude -- at least for three albums.

Afrodisiac, which was released in 2004, is notable for a number of reasons. It was Brandy's first album that didn't produce at least one Top 10 hit, signalling a rapid decline in her commercial clout, but more importantly, before Nelly Furtado rode his coattails to an unexpected comeback, it was produced predominantly by Timbaland. I remember reading a review at the time that predicted the Kanye West-produced and co-written first single, "Talk About Our Love," which featured Kanye on the rap bridge, would be the "Crazy In Love" of summer 2004. Sadly, that was not to be. The single stalled at No. 36 on Billboard's Hot 100, and the album quickly fell off the charts. Last night the suggestion was made that the album be re-released, and I think that wouldn't be a bad idea. It's alternately stuttering, zig-zagging and hypnotic beats may have been a bit too edgy for 2004, but I suspect that 2009 would welcome it with a far more open mind.

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