Deep Album Cuts Vol. 1: Brandy
I've always made mixtapes with nerdy specific themes, first on cassette as a teenager, then mix CDs, and no Spotify playlists. And I got the idea last year to do mixes of 'deep cuts' -- album tracks that were never singles or hits in any other sense -- from artists who are largely known for their hits. It's become a subject of fascination for me, how some artists can be incredibly famous, and even relatively respected for their work, sell millions of albums, and yet their musical legacy is tied up almost solely in the charting singles. It's not just 'one hit wonders.' So Madonna, or perhaps Tom Petty or Missy Elliott would be a good fit for this series; but not David Bowie or Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z, guys who have hits but are also revered as album artists with widely loved deep cuts (as you may detect, gender could be a factor here).
So I was already planning to start this series in early 2013 when there was a mild controversy on the internet last weekend in which Solange Knowles, the sibling of a significant R&B artist but not so much one herself, went on a tirade on Twitter about music critics writing about R&B without really loving or understanding the genre (which I thought was interesting, since I thought those kinds of critics were basically Solange's biggest champions). The line that really caught on, and created a minor meme, was "you really should know about deep Brandy album cuts before you are giving a 'grade' or a 'score' to any R&B artist," which perhaps struck people as funny because Brandy is not considered a major canonical act, though I imagine that was precisely Solange's point.
Most of my previous experience with Brandy deep cuts was with 2004's Afrodisiac and last year's Two Eleven. When I wrote about the latter here a couple months ago, I even admitted "I've always taken Brandy for granted." Other than the hilarity of who it's coming from, I don't take too much issue with what Solange is saying, even if I could personally feel implicated by it; I didn't buy or listen to contemporary R&B albums that often until around 2005, when I started writing album reviews regularly. There was something of a direct cause and effect, too -- I quickly realized that while I had an interest in writing about popular music, it was a lot less competitive to pitch an R&B album than a rap album that surely ten other critics had already pitched, and at that point most of my favorite songs on the radio had been R&B for several years, so it just made no sense for me to not check out the albums too.
So I combed through the dozens of non-hits on Brandy's six albums, and came up with her greatest misses as a Spotify playlist:
Deep Album Cuts Vol. 1: Brandy
2. Movin' On
3. Angel In Disguise featuring Joe
4. So Sick
5. All In Me
6. Warm It Up (With Love)
7. Learn The Hard Way
8. Always On My Mind
9. A Cappella (Something's Missing)
10. Paint This House
11. Where You Wanna Be featuring T.I.
13. When You Touch Me
14. Like This
15. Say You Will
16. Do You Know What You Have
17. Put That On Everything
18. Give Me You
Tracks 2, 8 and 18 from Brandy (1994)
Tracks 3, 7, 12 and 17 from Never Say Never (1998)
Tracks 5, 13 and 14 from Full Moon (2002)
Tracks 1, 11 and 15 from Afrodisiac (2004)
Tracks 6 and 9 from Human (2008)
Tracks 4, 10 and 16 from Two Eleven (2012)
I should note, by the way, that her biggest album, 1998's Never Say Never, is not on Spotify, so the four songs from that album are not in the playlist. Brandy is not a world class singer, but she's always had a unique, almost raspy tone, which I've often been reminded of in one of my favorite newer artists in R&B, Dawn Richard, formerly of Diddy-Dirty Money. During those "The Boy Is Mine" days, though, I always made a point of much preferring Monica's voice, and over the years I've remained something of a Monica partisan as she's built up a more consistent catalog.
Part of what's always kept Brandy at arm's length for me is the presence of Rodney Jerkins, one of the biggest and blandest producers in modern R&B, who helmed the bulk of three of her albums -- can you blame anyone for being more interested in Aaliyah when she had all those Timbaland tracks? Of course, Brandy did switch horses for 2004's Afrodisiac, making an album with Timbo right at his creative nadir (it speaks volumes that when Kanye West swooped in to do 2 songs at the last minute, he ended up with the lead single as well as the best deep cut, "Where You Wanna Be"). The Organized Noize production, "Necessary," easily outdoes every Tim song on the album. By comparison, Two Eleven is a far more confident and successful foray outside of Darkchild territory, with producers like Mike Will Made It and Bangladesh bringing her sound up to date in a way that she's never quite been able to do her whole career -- even when she was a huge hitmaker, there was a little bit of a sense that she was a family-friendly TV star, not really at the forefront.
But making this mix also made me take a good long second look at Rodney Jerkins, as well as the team that wrote and produced Brandy's 1994 self-titled debut, including Keith Crouch and Somethin' For The People. Jerkins deserves some credit for classic singles like "What About Us?" and "The Boy Is Mine," there's just a lot of really workmanlike, unexceptional stuff cluttering up his discography. Still, his work was at times more ambitious than I've given him credit for, especially on Full Moon, even if it hasn't all aged particularly well. One wonders if Brandy would have had a more interesting career if she'd acted less, or worked with more producers earlier, but the songs here represent a better catalog than I would've assumed. That Brandy has managed her biggest radio hit in a decade recently, even if she got a lot of help from that awful Chris Brown guest spot, is a testament to both her resilience and the adaptability of her voice.