Due to that LP’s poor commercial performance, the singer was dropped from Epic, and she then signed to RCA imprint Chameleon. The title of her sixth album, Two Eleven (out today, ), simultaneously references the singer’s birthday and the exact date when mentor Whitney Houston died. Additionally, the record’s aims are rooted in well-established standards — as Chameleon CEO Breyon Prescott emphasized and Brandy has echoed, “no gimmicks, real R&B music.” But preconceived notions of genres be damned, Two Eleven feels most like a career revival; it’s a concise album of sleek, modern songs that Brandy, now 33, can call hers and hers alone.
On 2004′s, Timbaland-produced Afrodisiac, Brandy openly mourned of a lost love while sounding at times like an Aaliyah stand-in. (Her “More Than a Woman” shout-out didn’t help.) In contrast, Two Eleven‘s second single “Wildest Dreams” is about her new boyfriend, music executive Ryan Press. First single “Put It Down” pairs the singer with a stupidly giddy Chris Brown (“Girl I know you’re fancy / but this party I’m finan-cing!”). “Put It Down” is also Brandy’s biggest hit in a decade, perhaps because she hasn’t sounded this cool or confident since 2002′s Full Moon.
Despite her blessings, Two Eleven often finds Brandy in romantically shaky situations, if not under self-imposed house arrest. In “Hardly Breathing,” she sings of having reached a breaking point as synths drip in the background like a leaky faucet. Elsewhere, on “Scared Of Beautiful,” co-written by Frank Ocean, the singer sighs as she takes stock of a lover’s lack of mirrors — to her, a sign that he’s refusing to see a good thing.
Two Eleven‘s songs are about being bedridden (“So Sick”), cursing the other women in his life (“Wish Your Love Away”), and, in rare weak moments, “painting” closets, faucets, the balcony “with our love.” What makes it all work, though, is how Brandy’s voice hints at strength that can only come with emotional distance. Its voice is tinged with regret, but it also has some bite, never sounding defeated for long.
Granted, Brandy isn’t a powerhouse vocalist like Whitney was. But while her voice isn’t muscular, it certainly is agile. Fortunately, she teamed up here with a slew of new-to-her producers and songwriters (Rico Love, MIDI Mafia, Sean Garrett, Mario Winans, etc.) who know how to play up her strengths. “Slower” (as in how he should act in bed) owes a sizable debt to Justin Timberlake‘s “My Love,” although Brandy raps through her compliments and directions faster than T.I. did. The Lykke Li-sampling “Let Me Go” is particularly infectious because of its skipping, hiccuping chorus: “B-b-b-let me go, b-b-b-baby don’t you let me.” And even in the pulsing “So Sick,” Brandy alternates between coasting and scattering through her grievances, tugging at her voice as if it was strapped to a leash.
“Just wanted someone real to love me for me / me, just Brandy,” the singer declares at one point on Two Eleven. She’s singing to a new beau, but her words also make for an apt statement to fans, if not critics who’ve heard her since age 15. She may have felt hard-pressed to emphasize the album’s firm R&B roots, but what’s more important is that for once, she doesn’t sound hard-pressed to play a wholesome role, or some hyper-idealized version of herself. Here, she’s just Brandy.
The Best Song Wasn’t the Single: Well, it is now. “Let Me Go” has been stuck in my head for days.
Pops Like: At times, like a milder version of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Full Disclosure: I am one of those people who have listened to Brandy since she was 15.
Idolator Rating: 4/5
— Christina Lee