Brandy has certainly had a long but eventful run as an R&B superstar with a sideline in teen sitcom stardom and ongoing personal drama. What she also has is a voice that goes deep, intense and right into you heart on the right material. Since the failure of her last album, 2008’s Human and her parting ways with her record label Brandy has spent time licking her wounds and convincing a stellar line-up of contributors to assist her in a much-needed comeback on Two Eleven.
Named after her birthday and the date her close friend Whitney Houston passed, Two Eleven is an attempt by Brandy to update the sort of music she made at her peak. A lofty ambition it might but she just about pulls it off. The likes of Bangladesh and Rico Love pepper Two Eleven with productions that feel slick, modern but also churn with the sort of solid, hook driven R&B pop that informed Brandy’s strongest mid 90s output.
Opening track (After a perfunctory “Intro”) Wildest Dreams is a grower, a mid-tempo ode to finally finding the right lover that might not wow the way you’d expect a big single to but slowly gets under your skin, the impassioned delivery setting up an album that feels highly personal despite Brandy not writing much of the lyrics herself . With so many producers involved it’s a credit to the team involved that Brandy’s signature vocals and tight, engaging production are joined together so seamlessly. Let Me Go and Put It Down fulfill the “club banger” quota but they’re still smart, swirling productions with beats dropping in and out as Brandy twists her deep voice around saucy one-liners. There’s some solid balladry too, like the gentle No Such Thing As Too Late that gets emotional and winds back down at just the right time before things get too soppy. Best are the mid-tempo come-ons like Slower and Can You Hear Me Now. The sex-jam is a staple of any R&B album (just ask Janet Jackon) and few get it right but Brandy’s delivery of lines about letting her inner freak out are played just right and it’s some of the most sonically interesting material on the album.
Despite the magic she came up with during her Timbaland phase on Afrodisiac, Brandy resorts to less modish sonic palettes here, instead going for a lived in vibe to the songs with a sense of space and mood created effortlessly by the songs. Frank Ocean hands in material (having worked on one of the few highlights of her last album and before he broke out on his own merits) and that sensitive, nu-R&B style in his work and in that of contemporaries like Drake, sits well on a Brandy record, a reminder of how her early work has made something of a lasting impact.
And that’s sort of the genius of Two Eleven. This is a consistent, tightly-woven piece that feels up-to-the-minute in an underhand way. With artists like The XX and Jessie Ware paying tribute to the golden era of 90s R&B in their work it’s exciting to see one of the stars of that era do music that tips a hat to their style while still sounding like themselves. A moody, brilliantly realized grower, Two Eleven might not dip it’s toe into the club-pop waters favoured by many R&B stars but is still one of the most satisfying listens of the year.