In the lead-up to Two Eleven, her sixth studio LP, Brandy has described the recording as “gritty” and “experimental”—curious claims, given her track record of concerted efforts to avoid both experiments and grit. Even more bizarre is that her promises hold somewhat true. Two Eleven brings Brandy into new territory, but invokes scant risk in doing so. It’s more like she just picked up her comfort zone and moved it closer to the front lines.
Let’s start with what works. “Slower” works; “Put It Down,” with its Diplo-lite club beat, works; “Can You Hear Me Now,” breathy vocoder and all, gets an invitation to the “what works” party. Electronic flourishes abound on Two Eleven, as do “haunted house” vocal effects, and these additions serve to expand Brandy’s stylistic vistas. “Let Me Go” suggests that there’s a more exciting, risk-prone singer waiting to break through the pop veneer. However, this second artist only flickers, then disappears. For the most part, Two Eleven is content to rehash Brandy’s past successes with an added frosting of synthesized tape hiss.
The predominant Brandy-ian themes of chaste love, pining and chaste pining fill out most of Two Eleven’s lyrical constituent. “Hardly Breathing” finds her delivering the type of, “Lord knows how much I want you” boiler plate that has paid her mortgage since 1994. Same goes for “Wish Your Love Away” and “Without You,” whose titles serve as perfectly adequate précis of their content.
“What You Need” and “Put It Down” find Brandy trying hard to sell a more lascivious version of herself. On the former track, she narrates a steamy rendezvous, as written by someone with a tragically limited sexual imagination. “Take off all my clothes, in exchange for yours,” she coos. “Sing sexy words in Spanish / Oh baby boy, you’re so man-ish.” I’m pretty sure R Kelly manages worse than that while brushing his teeth.
All these tracks are examples of R&B, but they’re R&B trying to find real estate in a post-Frank Ocean world. Computers are now allowed to sound like computers, and R&B can now be used to address cocaine addiction and wealth-strewn ennui.
Brandy, ever the savvy marketer, has affected an imitation with fewer noticeable seams than those offered by her contemporaries. But it’s still Brandy. She might have a keen eye for experiments and grit, but previous pioneers have safely mapped that experimental territory, and the grit is borrowed.