Tuesday, August 21, 2012

First Listen: Brandy - "Wildest Dreams"

I think nowadays people tend to forget just how influential Brandy has been since dropping her 1994 debut album (which contains one of my favorite R&B songs of all time, "Baby"). A major part of this is the same thing that affects all popular musicians in most genres - if you're a performer, once you hit your 30s shit gets really difficult, and few artists manage to survive at all much less remain successful. With her upcoming sixth studio album, Two Eleven, Brandy hopes a return to her roots and commitment to making traditional R&B work with a modern sound will mark a comeback from a five-year period of personal and professional struggles. Her new single, "Wildest Dreams," makes a strong case.

Brandy's particular struggles over the past five or six years are hardly exceptional - I can't think of anyone in their thirties on the front-of-camera end of the pop music business (with the possible exception of Ryan Seacrest) who hasn't had to contend with some inimical manner of fuckery in order to continue on their chosen career path. She was involved in a fatal car crash, then an album (2008's Human) that suffered from a new label and set of collaborators who phoned in sub-par work, and a subsequent split from both management and label; she was fired from an ABC series after it was picked up; perhaps most horrifying, despite being a favorite on season 11 of Dancing with the Stars, she ultimately lost to Bristol Palin. Ouch.
But never mind all that. Brandy is coming back with a new album, Two Eleven, her first for her supportive new label RCA Records (in partnership with Chameleon Entertainment), finally set to arrive on October 16 after multiple delays. The concept on the album is supposedly a return to Brandy's R&B roots while attempting to incorporate the "new sound of R&B" exemplified by the likes of Frank Ocean, Sean Garrett, and Drake, all of whom collaborated on the album. Interestingly, though, it appears that, along with Garrett, the two main producers are hip-hop progressive Bangladesh (Lil Wayne's "A Milli," Nicki Minaj's "Did It On 'Em," Ke$ha's "Sleazy") and R&B/hip hop heavyweight Rico Love (Nelly, Usher, Michelle Williams). Timbaland, with whom Brandy had been experimenting with rap, was an influence but contractual issues largely kept his work from appearing on this album, though Brandy has spoken of her desire to have him helm her next album. Also reportedly involved are Danja (Britney Spears' "Gimme More"), Mario Winans ("I Don't Wanna Know"), and fellow 90s R&B superstar Monica, who shows up for a more comradely sequel to their Grammy-winning smash "The Boy Is Mine" called "It All Belongs to Me" (released in February).

It's a formidable cast, and that bodes well for an album that Brandy has seemed pleased with in recent interviews. A Rolling Stone preview described the album as "Brandy at her most realized: romantically shaky, vocally sharp and musically sound" and indicated that the album benefits from the wizened hindsight of a 33 year old woman, as is commonly the case with work by veteran artists in their fourth decade and beyond. There's a particular sympathetic element to anticipation for Two Eleven as well; the artist has said of the album, "I honestly feel like - and I'm not trying to get emotional - but i really feel like this is my last chance."

"Wildest Dream," living up to the idea of "bringing R&B back," is a slow jam that many have suggested could have fit on what is often considered her strongest album, 2002's Full Moon. Brandy sings about a love so good that she never believed would be possible for her to have, a sentiment that is universal enough to connect with a lot of listeners and believable enough that it isn't important whether or not it comes from the singer's actual experience - in other words, perfect subject matter for a single. While it may not appear to blaze major new trails, there are subtle distinctions that separate it from Full Moon and keep it from being a merely dated throwback - in particular, the lush, contemporary urban beat by Tha Bizness, also a hip hop producer (Gucci Mane, Pusha T). It exemplifies Chameleon exec Breyon Prescott's description of the album's feel: "I got to bring you back to 2012 with hard beats, but the melodies are soft, and the content...[is] Brandy."

More importantly, it's a great listen with something for everyone: Brandy nostalgists will appreciate the track's familiarity and generic fidelity, while some will appreciate the emotional realness of the lyrics and others the clarity and smoothness of Brandy's skilled vocals. Plus, unlike the previous, Bangladesh-produced lead single "Put It Down," currently making a slow climb on the Billboard R&B chart, "Wildest Dream" doesn't involve Chris Brown (huzzah!).

"Wildest Dream" is just the kind of confident, solid, expertly executed R&B track that people want to hear from a veteran as accomplished and influential as Brandy, and it should assuage doubts instilled by the uneven, often unconvincing dance songs of Human, Brandy's lengthy and rocky subsequent hiatus, or multiple changes to the release date, which often suggest problems. Early response has been overwhelmingly positive from a legion of fans, who apparently agree with me that having Brandy back is going to be a very good thing.

"Wildest Dream" will be released on August 28. "It All Belongs To Me" (with Monica) and "Put It Down" (feat. Chris Brown") are available now. Two Eleven will be released by Chameleon & RCA Records on October 16, 2012.
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