Brandy has returned to the music scene with a new record deal, a more confident demeanor and most importantly, new music. After a few critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums, she was convinced she needed to redefine herself musically. She sought a fresher sound, which yielded Two Eleven’s lead single, “Put It Down.”
Though fun, catchy and commercial, elements of “Put It Down” were too elementary for an artist of Brandy’s caliber. Those elements include Sean Garrett’s undeveloped (but highly lucrative) writing style, Bangladesh’s repetitive production and Chris Brown’s unnecessary appearance. Oddly enough, she recruited the same team (sans Brown) for “Let Me Go,” an early release from the album that samples Swedish singer Lykke Li’s “Tonight.” She sings Garrett’s starry-eyed, empty lyrics over Bangladesh’s recycled synths, snares and claps.
Love is so mighty it will ‘make you compromise everything you said you wouldn’t do’. Yet again, Brandy succumbs to Garrett’s basic lyrics and Bangladesh’s formulaic production tendencies for “So Sick.” For future references, Brandy & co., let’s leave the mildly innovative writers and producers with the mildly innovative artists or limit their contribution to one song. In this case, that one song would be “So Sick.”
“Wildest Dreams,” the second single, sees Brandy going back to the basics–a head-nodding mid-tempo tender love song (written by Garrett, sigh) filled with immaculately layered vocals. Tha Bizness, who displayed their skills of blending hip-hop and R&B elements on Chris Brown’s “No Bullshit” and “Strip,” sculpted the production. Despite being aural gold, it’s 2012, not 2002, and “Wildest Dreams” won’t contribute to Brandy’s much-needed commercial revival.
“Slower” is subtly provocative and more in line of the type of songs one would expect from the 33-year-old introvert (who is gradually opening up). “My baby got a lot to learn, come here let mama bring you up to speed,” Brandy seductively sings. A host of writers penned the song, including Chris Brown and Sevyn. Switch (M.I.A. “Bad Girls”) crafted the progressive, mid-tempo beat.
Stripped of pretention and filled with confidence, Brandy finds herself spreading a significant message with “No Such Thing As Too Late”–being patient with love. Somehow, her flawless vocals salvaged Rico Love’s sparse and monotonous production. Is it me, or does this sound like a lullaby for adults?
It’s often contested why Brandy has been dubbed the “vocal bible.” Seemingly, she sought to silence critics with “Without You,” a cut housing heavy drums and dramatic keys, helmed by Harmony (Keyshia Cole’s “Enough of No Love,” Ne-Yo’s “Don’t Make Em Like You”). Vocally, “Without You” sees Brandy at her best; however, the excessive fawning and awkward ending left me annoyed. “Boy, I really need you,” she sings (which is exaggerated to immeasurable levels with her delivery). “I need you in my life because (oh boy) I’m nothing with you.” Only Jesus deserves that much worship.
Seemingly, when Rico Love crafts tracks with Pierre Medor, he’s inspired to prove he’s not a one trick pony. The duo made magic with Usher’s “Lessons for the Lover,” Rick Ross’ “Touch’N You” and Monica’s “Man Who Has Everything,” and stayed consistent with Brandy’s “Hardly Breathing.” (Or is the inspiration coming from Jim Jonsin, who co-produced the track?) Everything about this record is compelling. Am I the only one who misinterpreted “hardly” as “all the way-“ during the intro?
“I’m certified ride or die, trust,” Brandy sings over Mike WiLL’s (Juicy J’s “Bands A Make Her Dance”) thumping bass line. “Do You Know What You Have?” is just sultry goodness. Brandy rhetorically enlightens her beau about what he has at home with suggestive lyrics over a current production without seeming contrived.
A key hindrance of Brandy’s career is her obvious lack of confidence. “Scared of Beautiful” gives listeners an elusive peak at what she sees when she looks in the mirror–with the lamp on. Although I prefer Midi Mafia’s production on Frank Ocean’s version, Warryn Campbell did a great job reinterpreting their production to fit Bran.
“Wish Your Love Away” is the album’s dark horse and may require a few listens to fully grasp its greatness. Brandy opts out of bogging down the track with excessive vocal runs, which are more tolerable when sung a cappella (as indicated by the song’s closing), and complements the oriental flavored production with a more subtle (for her) vocal delivery. The content is simple, relatable and potent: ‘I wish that I didn’t love you and I wish I didn’t care…if I had one wish left, I’d wish your love away.’
Brandy illustrates a sexual fantasy with the metaphorically corny “Paint This House,” the closer of the standard edition of the album. “All of these floors and ceilings and every hallway, not an inch will go untouched,” she sings. “Let’s paint this house with our love.” It’s not something one would expect from Brandy, but like ‘Do You’ and “Slower,” ‘Paint’ doesn’t sound unnatural (meaning we need more of these and less “Put It Downs” and Let Me Gos,” B).
“Can You Hear Me Now?” is the first of three tracks featured on the deluxe edition. Danja produced the beat, and it’s my favorite from the project. The innovative R&B/Hip-Hop production sounds like something from Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train To Paris (nope, I’m not even a little bit ashamed of being a fan of that album) or Dawn Richard’s Armor On.
“Music” and “What You Need” are two additional tracks on the deluxe edition. The former isn’t worth mentioning, which is ironic because it’s an homage to music, but the latter finds Brandy painting in the kitchen with her mannish man–who knows basic Spanish. Remember that thin line between natural and artificial I implied earlier? She crossed it with “What You Need.”
Broadly, Two Eleven is an album of somber songs sung in Brandy’s impressive lower register. The songs aren’t necessarily melancholic, but frequently, they have a tendency of leaving me blue. For instance, at its core, “Wildest Dreams” is about her ‘finally finding someone that cares’ deeply for her. However, judging solely on her delivery, it seems like this happening has invited distress rather than bliss. Take a look at the live performance of the vulnerable song–do you walk away thinking: “damn, someone has brought extreme joy into her life”? Didn’t think so.
Although Two Eleven houses some of Brandy’s best vocal performances to date (some perfected to a fault), the sound isn’t distinctive from her previous efforts. Her ethereal harmonies, tone and control are praise-worthy and disheartening at the same time–such a gift is being wasted on the most generic songs. Granted, there aren’t any bad songs on the album, but there aren’t any career redefining songs (what Brandy needs and deserves) on the album, either.
Considering the vast array of topics she could have touched (the conception of the album title being one), I expected Two Eleven to evoke introspective depth of titanic proportions. Despite its flaws, it’s a cohesive LP and will reestablish Brandy as a significant artist in the fabric of contemporary R&B, which gives her some leeway to create a landmark follow-up.
Genius Report: B-
Standouts: “Wish Your Love Away,” “Slower,” “Do You Know What You Have?,” “Hardly Breathing,” “Can You Hear Me Now?” & “Paint This House”