Closing in on nearly two decades in the music business and following a label change, Brandy finally releases her sixth studio album, Two Eleven. Four years have passed since her last effort, Human, became an unjustified commercial failure, prompting two questions to be raised about her latest effort. Firstly, will her new album – which is devoid of her long-time collaborator, Darkchild – be as good, or even surpass her previous work? Secondly, will it garner Brandy some commercial success? The answer to the first is a slightly disappointed ‘not quite’, though overall it is a very good album. As for the second, that remains to be seen.
The album title was selected because February 12 is both Brandy’s birthday and also the day her friend and idol, Whitney Houston, passed away. The lead single to be taken from Two Eleven was ‘Put It Down’, which unfortunately features Chris Brown. It is understandable for struggling artists – or those poised for a comeback, like Brandy – to collaborate with current big names, in the hopes of gaining success by riding their coattails. However, out of all the artists available, Brandy choosing (or being chosen) to work with Chris Brown is depressing, but also unsuccessful. When compared with Brandy’s previous solo single – the stunning ‘Long Distance’ – ‘Put It Down’ is a ropey affair. Her vocal is solid and reliable as ever, however, Chris Brown’s rap is horrific, and the general production feels cheap and brash. As a taster for her new album it didn’t bode well.
Thankfully, second and more recent single, ‘Wildest Dreams‘ – also the first track on the album, discounting the rather pointless intro – is excellent. It is also a far more accurate representation of the bulk of the songs on Two Eleven. Note, we said ‘the bulk’, i.e. not all of the songs. The biggest criticism to be levied at Two Eleven is its inconsistent production. Before its release, Brandy had stated that her aim with this record was to bring back proper R&B, the classic, old school sound. She has a point. Many so-called R&B artists these days have veered so far from the R&B genre, instead recording a strange dance/electro-pop bastardisation with a vaguely urban edge – yet they still get called an R&B artist.
Nowhere is this inconsistency more apparent than with tracks 7, 8 & 9 – ‘Without You’, ‘Put It Down (feat. Chris Brown)’ and ‘Hardly Breathing’ respectively – arguably the weakest song on the album wedged between two stellar tracks, which truly hit the classic R&B mark. ‘Without You’ is sublime. Brandy’s soaring vocal, full of all the little ad libs we’ve come to love with her performances, lies over a stark instrumental of a tinkling piano and deep, thumping percussion. ‘Put It Down’ follows. While not a terrible song – mainly thanks to Brandy’s vocal – the instrumental sounds cheap and the vocal production is basic. It’s like Shondrae ‘Mr Bangladesh’ Crawford – who co-wrote and produced this track – is new to producing and has just discovered you can loop vocal phrases. There’s too much of ‘th-th-this’ going on. When you have a singer of Brandy’s calibre in the studio, you don’t need to employ such lame effects. ‘Put It Down’ really makes you miss Darkchild’s nimble and effortless sounding work.
Thankfully, hot on its heals is ‘Hardly Breathing’, a brooding number, ushered in by Brandy singing in her electric lower register that is her sweet spot – she repeatedly purrs the song’s title in a mesmerising fashion. Again, the classic R&B sound is fully realised here, with lush layered harmonies and a pulsating bassline. A luxurious production swells and enshrouds Brandy’s voice wonderfully. A pure R&B masterclass.
In the main, Two Eleven hits its mark. Aside from a few blips in the tracklisting, which tellingly all have Shondrae Crawford in common in the credits, the album achieves the throwback to the mid-90s R&B sound which Brandy wanted. The second half features a song co-written by the critically acclaimed Frank Ocean, called ‘Scared of Beautiful’. It’s a smouldering track, but also a little meandering and forgettable, featuring a theme in the same territory as the monster Christina Aguilera hit, ‘Beautiful’. ‘Wish Your Love Away’ follows, featuring a sample from the ‘Seven Samurai: Ending Theme’ of all things, though it works very well. It’s reminiscent of Prodigy’s ‘Diamond’ – a song successfully sampled on a few other R&B songs – having a similar quivering element to the instrumental.
The closing section of the album has a run of strong tracks, including ‘Paint This House’ – the final track on the standard edition – which is a steamy mid-tempo number, as Brandy sings, ‘And I want these stairs, those walls / kitchen counters, and those chairs / To remind you of how good it feels / And all of these floors and ceilings / and every hallway / Not an inch will go untouched / Let’s paint this house with our love’. ‘Can You Hear Me Now’ is next, having flavours of Timbaland when he’s on fire, rather than being lazy and derivative. The whole affair – both lyrics and music – are again sexually charged without being crass or explicit.
Overall, while it lacks the cohesive brilliance of the Darkchild albums (Human, Full Moon and Never Say Never), with the possible exception of ‘Put It Down’, it’s a strong and respectable return by Brandy. Her voice is as wonderful and impressive as ever and there are some truly brilliant tracks that she should feel proud to be adding to her catalogue.
Go Get It: ’Without You’ / ‘Hardly Breathing’
Forget It: ‘Put It Down’