Tuesday, October 30, 2012

13 (2+11) Random Thoughts I Had While Listening to Brandy's "Two Eleven"

1. I know the title of Brandy's sixth studio album was inspired by her birthday (February 11), a big day she shares with Jennifer Aniston which might hereafter be best known as the anniversary of the death of Whitney Houston, Brandy's No. 1 idol. Creepy? Just a little. If she had to assign a numerical value to her latest work, why not go the same route as Elton John, who was the age Brandy is now (33) when he released his 21st album, 21 at 33?

2. Looking at the cover of Two Eleven, I'm surprised at how little Brandy has changed in the 18 years since her self-titled debut album. (Even the braids are back, briefly, in the "Put It Down" video!) She's pretty much the same wide-eyed girl I first met in 1994 in New York City. I mean, aren't we all?

3. Pardon me while I go way off topic. Still gazing at the Two Eleven cover image, I realize why I don't love Revenge more than I do (aside from the fact that too many B-level plot threads is making season two slightly unwieldy). It's hard for me to buy that on the show, nobody, not even Jennifer Jason Leigh -- who A) doesn't age, and B) was so much more perceptive under the influence of God knows what in Georgia and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) -- can see that the young lady calling herself Emily Thorne, not the one passing for Amanda Clarke, is the all-grown-up eldest daughter of David Clarke. I mean, do kids really change so much between the ages of 10 and 25ish that they look like totally different people? (Perhaps they cast a young Amanda Clarke who looks more like Margarita Levieva, who plays faux Amanda, than Emily VanCamp, to sell the unbelievable premise.) Madeleine Stowe's Victoria Grayson seems to be a smart, observant, intuitive woman. Doesn't she recognize the past when it's staring her right in the face and plotting against her?

4. I won't hold my breath waiting for a Brandy guest arc on Revenge, but I have enjoyed watching her on Drop Dead Diva. She's a natural actress and a beautiful one, too. I wonder why Hollywood was never able to offer her anything better than I Know What You Did Last Summer. Now that Mary J. Blige is out as Nina Simone in that upcoming biopic, I wish they'd uncast Zoe Saldana and give Brandy the role. I bet she'd be a Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues-style revelation, and she could do her own singing.

5. Getting back to the album, that deep throbbing baseline that underscores "So Sick" might be the greatest production flourish on Two Eleven. Thank God, the third track is not, as I feared it might be, a cover of the 2006 No. 1 single by Ne-Yo, a talented singer-songwriter to whom I've never really warmed up.

6. Generally, unless they involve a powerhouse vocalist with an edge (Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton), I haven't been particularly fond of contemporary slow jams since the '80s, which is why I'm impressed by how impressed I am by some of the ballads on Two Eleven, which could still use fewer of them. Where in the past Brandy was overly concerned with singing pretty, she's now connecting with the lyrics in way that makes a fairly pedestrian track like "No Such Thing As Too Late" not only highly listenable but highly enjoyable, too.

7. Two Eleven blends elements of 1998 and 2012 without sounding wholly like a product of either decade. That said, a song like "Let Me Go" couldn't have possibly existed pre-Rihanna. Thankfully, Brandy's semi-impersonation of Rihanna is a far more natural fit than Alicia Keys' on "New Day." Perhaps it's because a world-class singer like Keys is capable of so much more, but while Brandy sounds like she's stretching, trying to expand her comfort zone, Keys seems to be simply trying (too hard) to be hip and hitworthy.

8. "If mama saw this side of me, she would be on Twitter saying, 'You know I didn't raise you that way'" (from "Let Me Go") might very well be my favorite R&B lyric of 2012. And how 2012 is mom vs. daughter on Twitter? Considering that the Norwoods starred on the 2010-11 VH1 reality series Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business, I actually wouldn't put it past them.

9. Speaking of Sonja Norwood, I wonder how she feels about her big sacrifice now. In 1994 when I interviewed Brandy and Sonja for a People magazine feature, her mother burst into tears when recounting how she gave up her career working for H&R Block in order to manage her tween daughter. Was it worth it? Despite her tears at the time, she said yes without hesitating.

10. Sonja must be proud of the fact that Brandy is the rare child star who aged gracefully and unblemished by scandal. Aside from one unfortunately fatal fender bender at the end of 2006, she's managed to stay out of the tabloids over the years, which is more than I can say for her kid brother (and Kim Kardashian's ex and home-video costar) Ray J. Would it be too much to ask for a gold and platinum reward?

11. Probably. "Put It Down," like recent comeback non-hits by Christina Aguilera and No Doubt, has underperformed on the charts and might become the first lead single from a Brandy studio album to miss the Top 40. (Though I'm pretty sure all the artlessly done product placement in the video padded her coffers nicely.) I particularly love how Brandy effortlessly shifts vocal personas throughout the song: raspy seductress one moment, angelic crooner the next, segueing into haughty semi-rapper for a few bars. She's squarely center stage, as she should be, which makes me wonder, on a 14-track (plus three "Deluxe"-edition extras) album featuring only one star cameo, why did it have to be Chris Brown?

12. Overall, Two Eleven is a huge improvement on 2008's plodding ironically lifeless Human, but it's no match for 2002's Full Moon or 2004's Afrodisiac, Brandy's masterpiece. I'd put it on par with 1998's Never Say Never, which had the chart-topping Monica duet, "The Boy Is Mine," as its secret commercial weapon. Yet another reason why Brandy should have aimed higher than Chris Brown.

13. Intros and outros -- so... '90s. You can take the girl out of the decade...

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