After spending the four years since 2008's "Human" (Epic Records) largely away from the recording booth -- save for a brief foray into rap, under the name Bran'Nu -- Brandy Norwood is making a return to her R&B roots on the melodic, vocal-driven "Two Eleven," which arrives Oct. 16 on RCA/Chameleon Records.
The project is the first under the singer/actor's new deal with RCA/Chameleon. After "Human" disappointed commercially, debuting at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart and selling just 214,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, Brandy exited longtime home Epic in 2009, shortly after Amanda Ghost joined the label as president. Ghost, who left Epic in late 2010, declined to comment.
"I've been trying to find myself, musically," says Brandy, who returned to TV during the hiatus (she had starred in the hit TV series "Moesha" from 1996 to 2001). She appeared alongside her brother Ray J, also a singer, in VH1's "Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business" (and delivered the companion album A Family Business), and in fall 2010, Brandy competed on "Dancing With the Stars."
"At one point I thought I wouldn't get another chance," she says. "You get those thoughts when you take time off, [like], 'Is it over? It's never going to happen again.' [But] the four years wasn't really my fault. If it were up to me I would do music every day. I didn't have a backing, a home, a deal. In that time I was able to meet with RCA, get a deal with them and figure out what I wanted to do musically. It's working out perfect because now, with Two Eleven, it's everything that I want."
The road back to her recording career began in August 2011, when Chameleon founder Breyon Prescott signed Brandy to a joint venture between RCA and Chameleon 18 months after seeing her perform at RnB Live Hollywood. "I saw an opportunity to take something that's so precious and bring it back to the music business," says Prescott, who's worked with Angie Stone and Jamie Foxx. "When I saw her perform, she performed like she had a chip on her shoulder. I think she felt like the industry had given up on her."
"Artist that have their ups and downs, and still have a hunger for it, they want to win," RCA Records president/COO Tom Corson says. "Moving from label to label has motivated her. She wants to win badly. She's a fighter. Put that with her history, and she's always going to be a threat. That was a big factor in us realizing we were on the same page."
Prescott promised Brandy a grand comeback only if she was open to doing things differently. He challenged her "to bring a blend of [a] hip-hop feel with an R&B sense of melody and use her vocals as an instrument."
Brandy, feeling like this was "another chance at music," she says, took on the challenge. "Two Eleven" showcases her multilayered impassioned vocals laid over melodic hip-hop soundscapes. The album features production by Bangladesh, Danja, Jim Jonsin, Mike Will Made It and songwriting by Frank Ocean, while Sean Garrett, Rico Love and Mario Winans pull double duty. "We saw everybody doing this whole dance sound and said, 'You can't do it,'" Prescott says. "'You got to bring it back into 2012 with your hard beats, but the melodies and content of the songs got to be good.'"
"Two Eleven" follows several major R&B releases that were marked by their dance influences. Usher and Chris Brown both put out albums this year that were heavy on dance and underperformed compared with previous releases, raising questions as to whether they neglected their core audience by skewing too pop and dance.
For "Two Eleven," Prescott says that it's Brandy's best work since 1998's "Never Say Never" (Atlantic), which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 4.6 million, according to SoundScan. Corson adds, "We wanted to make a great R&B album that could cross over. [We wanted] to stick to what made Brandy 'Brandy,' [who] is one of the greatest voices in R&B and also an artist that has mainstream appeal."
Lead single "Put It Down," which features Brown, the album's only collaborator, is No. 16 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and marks Brandy's 10th top 10 on the chart in 10 years.
"I wanted to come back on my own," Brandy says of collaborating. "I have had great collaborations in my career. I just don't like doing songs just to do them with people. This album didn't present that opportunity. The Chris Brown [song] happened organically. I wanted to stand on my own two feet with this album and reintroduce myself to my fans and the new generation as me."