If you were born after 1990, you probably don’t understand just how huge Brandy once was. Less sensual than Janet, more street than Whitney, less diva than Mariah, Brandy was the girl next door—if the girl next door made mesmerizingly catchy hit songs. Her albums went platinum (Never Say Never), her songs were cultural landmarks (The Boy Is Mine) and she had her own hit TV show (Moesha). Brandy was more than a singer; Brandy was a phenomenon.
Fast forward to 2008. It’s been more than four years since Brandy has released an album, and in that time she’s had more of an impact on tabloid headlines—for her split from her “husband” and involvement in a fatal car accident—than on the music industry. As depressing as it is to write these words, her brother Ray J has spent far more time on the charts recently.
Brandy’s slow decline from stardom isn’t an example of Ashanti Syndrome when America tires of an artist for no discernable reason. No, Brandy’s current place at the relative periphery of the music industry she once owned is entirely due to the fact that America once knew and loved Brandy the girl. Brandy the woman, however, remains a mystery.
I wish I could say that Brandy’s new album Human will change all that, that it will catapult her back to the top of the charts, but it won’t. Human, an emotionally honest but musically unadventurous album which reunites Brandy with her long-time production partner Darkchild, is more than enough to make her old fan’s praise her return, but she’ll be hard-pressed to compete with the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce for the same young-girl demographic that once adored her.
Just take her second single "Long Distance," a live instrumentation slow jam that showcases Brandy’s newfound emphasis on highly personalized songwriting. Brandy’s voice never overpowered you, it was always more conversational than orchestral, and time has given her vocals a slightly worn quality that only enhances the emotionally charged quality of the track. "Long Distance" treads some familiar musical ground, and treads it with a deft touch, but it won’t be enough to make an impact on the charts.
On a similar level is the title track, a sparsely echoing record that has Brandy reconnecting with the every-girl quality that first made her so popular. It’s impossible to hear "Human" without thinking of the drama in her personal life that’s been splashed across the tabloid pages, and it’s moments like this that make Human Brandy’s most revealing album to date. At the same time, "Human" has the same “been there, done that” quality of "Long Distance," it never quite kicks into that higher gear that all great songs have.
Human is at its core an album of ballads, but from time to time it shows that Brandy can still put together something to make you move. "Right Here (Departed)," a rhythm-heavy joint that adds some electronic synths and heavy claps to the usual ballad formula while Brandy lays down her typically flawless lyrics. It doesn’t have the sonically adventurous energy of her last album, Afrodisiac, but it’s enough to get your head nodding. It’s the same story on "Piano Man," an echoing track that’s (thankfully) an ode to her musical partnership with Darkchild, not a cover of the Billy Joel song. The swirling production feels upbeat, but Brandy embeds the tracks with a somber quality with lyrics like, “sing me a song about heartache, I promise I can sing every word.” On an album in need of at least one high energy track, the overall effect is disappointing, like going on vacation to Hawaii, only to have it rain the entire trip.
Now I’m not suggesting that she go and get herself a T-Pain hook (thank Jesus she didn’t), but what makes a radio hit has changed a lot since the days of "Sittin’ Up In My Room," and she would have done well to connect with some of the industry’s younger blood. Still, in the end, Human feels like an album Brandy needed to make for herself as a sort of catharsis, not an album designed to launch her back into the spotlight, and on that level, it succeeds admirably.
Don’t call it a comeback, Brandy’s been here for years.