’ve given up trying to figure out Brandy. She’s hid out in the spotlight for too long, never tip-toeing outside her role as a teen diva-in-training, never catching flak for being a manufactured urban princess like Ashanti either. Ten amazing and terrifically impersonal years into her career, we don’t know any more about Brandy than we did in 1994, when she was a 15 year old newcomer who just desperately wanted to be down.
And that’s exactly the way she likes it, at least if Afrodisiac is any indication. Brandy wrote barely any of the lyrics herself, but the story she tells is still revealingly oblique. Afrodisiac’s being marketed as a coming-of-age record, but this isn’t the kind of “all growns up” we’re used to seeing from our female pop stars, all newly unwrapped sexuality prepackaged for maximum male hormonal meltdown—dams bursting, speeding trains, shooting fireworks, the previously coquettish young innocent dead and buried, completely eradicated so you don’t feel bad for leering at Moesha or a Mouseketeer, replaced by a brand-new fully-formed sex symbol.
Brandy briefly tries on that bare-all ensemble for “Come As You Are”, but it never quite seems to fit. Tellingly, she’d rather reminisce than stake out brazen new sexual territory—one of the album’s best and brightest cuts, “Turn it Up”, finds Brandy waxing nostalgic for Kid 'N Play's House Party, of all things.
Of course, no one’s ever going to politely accuse Brandy of being an "artist"—she’s no self-contained “visionary” making backward-looking neo-vintage soul like Alicia Keys. But she’s obviously got complete control over her own image, and ultimately we can’t get a bead on Brandy precisely because she hasn’t yet figured it out herself.
Which is exactly what makes Afrodisiac such a fascinating exercise, watching Brandy recede into the shadows at times, handing over the reins to Timbaland, unsurprisingly stealing most of the juice here with a handful of wildly inventive, wonderfully kinetic tracks. Timbo does his trademark club-bangin’ thing (“Sadiddy”, “Turn it Up”), his effortlessly floaty, slightly off-center R&B thing (“Focus”, “Finally” being natural heirs to Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat”), even dropping an Iron Maiden sample on the rainy-day ballad “I Tried”.
Brandy’s happy to be his vessel most of the time (or Kanye’s for a pair of tracks too), her mostly milquetoast personality and decidedly un-histrionic voice making it easy to forget just how hard it is to stay on top like this for so long, and you start to wonder if maybe she just lucked up on longevity, that she somehow avoided becoming a casualty of pop fickleness through her blandly inoffensive ubiquity.
But it’s more than that, because bland won’t buy your meal ticket forever. It seems to me that people feel a genuine sense of empathy and emotional verisimilitude from Brandy, someone who doesn’t make a big show about being “realer” than the next R&B queen, but just is. Plus she’s someone we can expect to always be there, doing her thing the same way she’s always done it.
Except that maybe now Brandy doesn’t want to be our go-to girl anymore. “Should I Go” is a rarity in Brandy’s catalogue because it’s a song that’s only relatably significant to one person, Brandy herself, wondering aloud whether it’s worth bothering with the bureaucracy of the music industry when she’s not even sure it’s part of her long-term goals, while Timbaland quietly cuts up Coldplay’s “Clocks” in the background.
It might come as a shocker, but it shouldn’t—Brandy’s always been straight with us, and something tells me she’s not the type to fake it once the fire has burned itself out.