Brandy and the Sad Fate of Pop Stars Who Take a Chance and Then Retreat

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Her latest album bears the hallmarks of an artist who took a bold left turn but then returned to radio-chasing complacency—only to find that radio didn't really want her anymore.

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A pop star is as much a brand as a performer. Mariah or Beyoncé or Rihanna: Their names are reduced to iconic single-word slogans for a reason. Yes, Madonna can change her look over and over as long as she's still the same sex symbol, and Robyn can shift over a step or two to move from teen dance sensation to serious dance sensation. But the core remains the surface, and that surface remains success. If you're selling, everybody's willing to shrug and let you pretend to be a genius if you want. But if your audience leaves you—well, you're not jazz or indie or alt country, are you? In pop, being a genius critic's darling isn't going to save you.

In 2004, Brandy was in a position to control her own career, and so she made an idiosyncratic, daring album. Having done so, she should have been freer than ever.

Thus the sad fate of Brandy. She's currently pushing a generic new album Two Eleven, out this week. But there was a moment back there, not too long ago, where it seemed like she was going to be an auteur. Weary of being just the most impressive effect in longtime producer Rodney Jerkins bag of tricks, Brandy ditched him. She turned instead to the equally hot but significantly quirkier Timbaland and his protégé Walter Millsap III. The result was Afrodisiac, the best album of Brandy's career and one of the greatest R&B albums of the last 25 years.

Afrodisiac is that rare album in which a pop star kicks her brand to the curb. Instead of default ballad after default ballad, Timbaland and Milsap provided a series of stuttering, burping productions in which Brandy's vocals swerved and bounced like velvet superballs. On "Sadiddy," Timbaland put hand claps and synths together to create a beat that sounded like a skipping chicken, which Brandy punctuated with rhythmic swinging vocals both declaiming and demonstrating that she ain't no bourgie sadiddy loser. On "Focus" Timbaland threw on a plangent electric guitar and a throbbing background while Brandy lightened her singing and emphasized her breathing to create a shimmering lament for a love she can't forget. The song was as much dream-pop as R&B—the kind of track that fuses two genres so seamlessly you wonder why anyone ever bothers to separate them in the first place.

It's certainly possible to see Afrodisiac as Timbaland's triumph rather than Brandy's; you could argue it's just an example of a different producer inserting a different program into the empty vessel. But the album didn't give the impression that its singer was taking orders. On the contrary, it came across as a conversation or a flirtation. On "Who Is She 2 U," Timbaland opened with his own beatbox vocals, which then served as a blueprint for the beat, so that the song became a kind of duet, with Brandy chewing out her man and Timbaland offering wordless evasions and/or encouragement. On "Afrodisiac," on the other hand, Brandy herself did the beginning rhythmic Timbalandesque quasi-beatboxing. Essentially he was mimicking her mimicking him. "You fulfill my every desire/when I'm with you, you take me higher/you're my Afrodisiac," she sang, and it sounded like a love letter from her to him and from him to her as they spiraled up into a rapturously, goofily stylish quintessence of funk.

The last track of Afrodisiac is titled "Should I Go." It wasn't about leaving a lover, but about leaving the industry. Brandy mused that the music biz had changed since she started out, noted that she didn't need the money anymore, and wondered whether she should just chuck it all. "Should I go/should I stay/I'm in control either way" she declared as a piano figure looped earnestly. The self-dramatization, not to mention self-absorption, was off-putting—but, especially in the context of the album, it was hard not to appreciate the sentiment. Brandy was in a position to control her own career, and so she took a chance and made an idiosyncratic, daring album. Having done so, she should have been freer than ever. Why not follow up on those dream-pop hints on "Focus"? Or do more work with Cee-lo, whose boiling, rock-tinged "Necessary" sounds like nothing else on the album, or in Brandy's oeuvre? Once she'd gone from collaborating with Jerkins to Timbaland, why not from Timbaland to, say, Björk? What was to stop her?

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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