The road to "Two Eleven," Brandy's sixth studio album, hasn't exactly been smooth. In the years since 2008's "Human," the singer parted ways with label Epic Records when the album underperformed, took a break from singing to dabble in rap (under the name Bran'Nu), reality TV ("Dancing With The Stars," VH1's "A Family Business") and acting (recurring roles on The CW's "90210" and BET's "The Game.") When she finally returned to R&B earlier this year it was for the Monica reunion "It All Belongs To Me," a single that underperformed so much it delayed the release of "Two Eleven." It was also ultimately pulled from the album altogether, after initially being conceived as a joint release for Monica and Brandy's first albums for RCA.
So it's comforting, then, to hear Brandy at her most assured on "Two Eleven," a collection of old-school R&B songs with a modern, often futuristic twist with no trend-chasing experiments with EDM and virtually no guest stars (save for a Chris Brown cameo on lead single "Put It Down.") In fact, it's her most focused album since 1998's "Never Say Never," the Rodney Jerkins-helmed LP that made her a global superstar.
While "Two Eleven" won't touch that album's chart impact (truth be told, it may even struggle to match or surpass the disappointing 214,000 copies that "Human" sold), it nevertheless features some of her freshest beats since 2004's experimental, critically adored "Afrodisiac," courtesy of a list of collaborators that includes Bangladesh, Mike WiLL Made It, Major Lazer's Switch, Jim Jonsin and Nate "Danja" Hills. It also has a who's who of contemporary R&B songwriters, from a pair of tracks with Chris Brown to previous collaborator Frank Ocean to Sean Garrett, Rico Love and Mario Winans.
Which tracks are the best on "Two Eleven?" Read on for Billboard's track-by-track review.
1. "Intro" A throwback to the interludes that populated albums like "Never Say Never" and "Full Moon," this percolating instrumental is really just a one-minute warm-up to what's about to come.
2. "Wildest Dreams" "Two Eleven"'s second single and arguably its strongest moment, "Wildest Dreams" is a return to the beat-driven ballads upon which Brandy built her name in the 90s, with warm layers of piano and even jazz flute that recall 1995's "Best Friend." It's also destined to be a live favorite at upcoming shows, with producer The Bizness whispering the singer's name and even Brandy name-checking herself on the second verse ("Just wanted someone real to love me for me / Me / Just Brandy").
3. "So Sick" One of many "Two Eleven" tracks that layer Brandy's distinctive, husky alto on top of a more breathy falsetto, "So Sick" is a bumping, heartfelt ode to anyone who's been stuck in a one-sided relationship. "When he makes you go and compromise everything you said the night before / When you love him more than you love yourself / You can't let go when you just can't help it," are among the symptoms of Brandy's love sickness.
4. "Slower" The first of two songs co-written with Chris Brown, "Slower" features jittery, beatbox-esque beats that would have been at home on 2005's "Afrodisiac" and mildly uncomfortable sex talk that might have been better suited to Brown's "Fortune" album. Even Brandy herself doesn't seem too comfortable with all the raunch, noting "I know you wanna beat it up up / but I'm sorry / that ain't really my thing" and instead offering "kissing and licking up on me" as an alternative. It's nowhere near the cunnilingus single entendres you'll find on a recent Rihanna record, but Brandy finds a way to add class to what could have otherwise been an icky sex jam.
5. "No Such Thing As Too Late" This Rico Love, "Turn the lights off!" production is one of Brandy's most straightforward power ballads since "Have You Ever" and finds her treading cautiously towards new love. "So take your time / cause love ain't got nowhere to go / it will be way better if we wait," she sings on the empowering chorus.
6. "Let Me Go" On "Afrodisiac," Brandy outed herself as a Coldplay fanatic, referencing "Spies" on one track and outright sampling "Clocks" on another. Here she comes clean as a Swedish pop fan, sampling Lykke Li's "Tonight" on the intro to this Bangladesh banger, which finds Brandy much more at home on top of a modern club beat than she is on "Put It Down." It also features a comedic reference to her mother Sonja calling her out on Twitter for indulging her love of a potential suitor's "cocky talk" and exclaiming "damn your denims."
7. "Without You" If Keyshia Cole has built her career on being the missing link between Brandy and Mary J. Blige, this is Brandy's attempt to reclaim some of that territory. Featuring co-writing credits from Harmony Samuels (who also penned Cole's current single "Enough of No Love") and twinkling piano reminiscent of Blige's "No More Drama," "Without You" is the kind of ballad you'd hear all over R&B radio in the late 90s. It may lack the sheer vocal heft of her peers, but Brandy delivers a confident, restrained performance here worthy of its own kind of praise.
8. "Put It Down" The result of what happens when a label asks to hear a current single, "Put It Down" is noteworthy mostly for its semi-tribute to the dearly departed Bran'Nu, Brandy's rapper alter ego last seen on Timbaland's "Shock Value II." As the only song on "Two Eleven" that has to ride 2012's coattails (i.e. Chris Brown's), it's also the weakest.
9. "Hardly Breathing" Another Rico Love slow jam, "Hardly Breathing" again finds Brandy taking a reluctant chance on love ("been hurt to many times / and I can't take it / not again.") She consults her mother and curses her weary heart for her suspicions, but Brandy sounds like she just might take the plunge by the time the synths are done swelling on this dense, headphones-friendly cut.
10. "Do You Know What You Have?" Fresh off "Bandz A Make Her Dance," Mike WiLL Made It gives Brandy some of her dopest beats on this blippy, futuristic track that finds Brandy asking her man to choose between her and another woman. (Sound familiar, Monica?)
11. "Scared Of Beautiful" This is a reunion of sorts between Brandy and Frank Ocean, who wrote a pair of tracks for 2008's underappreciated "Human" as well as her John Legend duet "Quickly." "Scared Of Beautiful" features some of the album's most cliched lyrics ("scared of the dark / more than the light," a "mirror, mirror" interlude on the bridge) but turns them into an emotional breakthrough that references the singer's battle with eating disorders over the years ("no wonder why there's no mirrors on these walls no more"). It all culminates in a wrenching conclusion that finds Brandy confessing, "I'm scared of me," with an honest vocal that recalls Ocean's own "Bad Religion" from this summer's breakthrough "Channel Orange."
12. "Wish Your Love Away" A finger-snapping kiss-off to an ex, this Mario Winans-assisted ballad also features brief plucks of a harp straight out of "The Boy Is Mine" and other late-90s R&B production tropes that make this another sure-to-be throwback favorite for longtime fans.
13. "Paint This House" Though ending the album with another uncomfortable sex jam is a questionable choice, "Paint This House" is nevertheless another impeccable production from Rico Love that finds Brandy searching for the soul in a song that's otherwise about christening a new residence with some baby-making fun.
14. "Outro" Picking up where the album began, "Outro" bookends the album with some slow-burning drums and strings to comfort the listener. But it's not over -- go to iTunes and seek out three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, particularly the Bangladesh-produced "What You Need," arguably the most successful of "Two Eleven"'s sex tracks in terms of its playing to Brandy's strengths as a vocalist.