“I wanna be down.” A declaration, never a question, and it belonged to the mononymous R&B sensation that is Brandy.
In September of 1994, these words formed the year’s boldest assertion from a musical artist, and gave name to one of the most refreshing entries into the R&B canon, pretty much ever. It’s hardly hyperbole, seeing as the mid-tempo record with the booming bass told of more than teenage flirtation, but of a new musical era. An era wherein the seemingly disparate worlds of hip-hop and soul would merge to transformative results and Brandy would be its muse.
Shit, she was my muse–every Black teenage girl’s patron saint of ineffable cool and girlish effervescence. Once the singer bounded onto the scene that year with her self-titled debut album, we were instantly within Brandy’s strong hold. With every flawless chord change, with every baby backpack adorned, with every flick of her preened box braids, legions of Black girls just like myself were left besotted with the new R&B sensation. Brandy was a vocal wunderkind whose massive range was matched only by her total accessibility. Unlike her pop princess successors of the late 90’s, the singer never deflected from her age, but culled from her youth for inspiration. The unspoken crushes, the maddening “does he-doesn’t he?!”, the brutal heartaches that make up first love stood as overarching themes of the album’s endearing (and enduring) follow-up hits, “Baby” and “Brokenhearted”. In fact, the very video for the latter left this 30-year old writer teary eyed after extracting it from Brandy’s YouTube library a week ago.
Was I crying for my youth? Hardly— mine was a cautionary tale. But instead, I was bowled over by the elucidatory fact that my twelve-year old self had all but failed to detect the inherent undertow of sadness and lament this song possesses. As a pre-teen, I unconsciously must have been distracted by the Hype Williams video treatment, it giving vibrancy to a rather melancholic song, but as an adult it’s the lasting effectual power of this powerful ballad that has my full attention. Its continued ability to provoke such a visceral response reminded me of what designer, Dries van Noten, once said: “If art is any good, it has so much of a longer trajectory than one night.” Or, in this case, one album, one era in music. It is certainly a relic of the R&B past, but it’s hardly dated.
Speaking of which, there is nothing more gratifying than to observe the style prescience Brandy maintained throughout the years; she wielding a visual sophistication that most certainly belied her age. Simply press play on any number of the videos to her follow-up hits like, “Sitting Up in My Room”, “The Boy is Mine”, “Have You Ever”, and be prepared to be mesmerized by how the singer’s influence still permeates in fashion today. Modish silver lamé boots that are nearly identical to Miu Miu’s from Fall 2013; silken pajama pant sets that Louis Vuitton’s Resort 2012 collection all but matched; the natty menswear-inspired tailored suit à la Jil Sander…it’s all so “aesthetically durable.” I specifically remember the April 1995 Seventeen issue that she covered: over time my copy became whittled with creases and wear, as I compulsively re-read her profile. Intently I studied Brandy’s cover look: the “done-but-undone” knots of her tousled braids, the multi-color textured knit sweater, all set against a bare backdrop. There was something so streamlined about this look but equally, impactful, that to this day it remains impressed into my mind. Perhaps it’s Brandy’s classic features playing against a decidedly modern look, but I ultimately believe that this singular image of a young Black woman, she touted as an universal trendsetter, was something of a rarity that I found unbelievable hope in.
I mean, what great Black female entertainer, other than Brandy, had made the Black hair tradition of box braids as ubiquitous as she? Who had ever dared to bare their baby hair on a national mainstream publication? The many iterations of this hairstyle the singer adorned made box braids nothing short of a pop cultural fascination. And when her wildly popular television show, Moesha, debuted on the UPN network in 1996 (“Mo-to-the!…E-to-the!…”), Brandy’s perfectly manicured plaits became a household fixture, they an undeniable signifier of Black girl charm. Even when she was anointed as Disney’s first Black princess in the 1997 made-for-TV adaptation of the century’s old fairytale, Cinderella, the singer’s coiled braids were festooned with a crown. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me, either…girl reigned supreme.
Just as rapper/actor, Will Smith, had introduced hip-hop to the American social imagination with his cult-classic, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Brandy’s on-air work brought modern R&B into American households. In fact, quite similarly to Smith, she was a multi-platform performer: an entertainer who dominated in music, film, TV, and style. Without question, no performer has been able to replicate such a widespread appeal since.
Of course, as is the way of any teenage ingénue, over time Brandy was eager to shirk her childhood canon body of work for a decidedly more grown sound and look. To her credit, she was much more subtle in her intentions than modern-day pop stars (ahem), and instead worked with producer, Rodney Jerkins, on developing the conceptual album that is, Full Moon. Influenced by dubstep and European electronic music, this album tore down the squeaky-clean façade that was no longer working for her as an artist. I mean, to be sure, the album’s title track is one of her sexiest to date: over a slinky, atmospheric beat, “Full Moon” told of an astrological pull that provoked instinctive carnal desires. But even more, it told of a young woman who was more than willing to act on them. Brandy was all grown’s up, which her following album, Afrodisiac, all but cemented. It’s interesting to consider that her work at that time with a relatively unknown, Kanye West, would be something of a career risk, but it spawned the hit, “Talk About Our Love.”
The list of hits, of course, continues to grow as the 20 year music vet continues to pump out the bangers–2012 just spawned “Put It Down” from her Two Eleven album–but what I find most intriguing about Brandy as an artist is that she really did do it all. She was the modern R&B vanguard, the “It girl” sensation, the purveyor of Black girl cool, the wide-eyed teenage girl who actually got to go to prom with Kobe Bryant. The latter, a bit superfluous, but I think you can gather that without Brandy, without her influence, I’m not quite sure what our youth would have sounded like.
Check out our “20 Year Influence of Brandy” playlist put together by singer/producer, Suzi Analogue, mixed exclusively for Saint Heron. Tears are optional.