Over 20 years ago, a legion of Black girls marveled at Brandy’s curled microbraids cascading from her tiara as she played Disney’s first Black princess in the 1997 musical TV film Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella; Whitney Houston co-produced and starred as the Fairy Godmother.
At the time, Brandy was just 18, but her career was about to take off. The following year, the now icon scored her first Hot 100 No. 1 with “The Boy Is Mine” featuring Monica. The track also became Brandy’s first and only Grammy win thus far.
It’s been eight years since her last album (2012’s Two Eleven) — in that time, Brandy starred in Broadway’s Chicago, collaborated with Daniel Caesar and launched her own imprint, Brand Nu — but now she’s back with B7, the first album released under her label and distributed by Entertainment One (eOne). As Brandy speaks in her honeyed, husky vocals — which earned her the title of “Vocal Bible” — the 41-year-old reveals how she took the reins on B7.
She says her favorite song on the album, “Borderline,” channels “Angel in Disguise” from her 1998 LP Never Say Never, while on “Unconditional Oceans” she experiments more with electro-soul beats. Lyrically, Brandy owns the phrase “Baby Mama” on her collaboration with Chance the Rapper; apologizes for her longest musical hiatus to date on opening track “Saving All My Love” (“Sorry for my tardy/ Long time/ I was broken-hearted,” she sings); and confronts her mental health issues head on in the aptly titled “Bye Bipolar.”
As a whole, B7 looks to Brandy’s past — and pays homage to Houston — while also ushering in her future, seeing her pass down the torch to her daughter (who features on a track) as well as rising R&B artists such as 20-year-old Halle Bailey from the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, who was cast as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid last summer.
Billboard spoke with Brandy about the new album, the Disney princess advice she has for Bailey, and how she’s been taking care of herself during the ongoing pandemic.
You co-wrote and co-produced B7, which was a first for you. How did that impact the album?
It was really important for me to just discover that part of myself. I was working with some amazing people like DJ Camper and LaShawn Daniels, who helped guide me, and it was a way for me to really use music to heal and be therapeutic. It felt different than anything that I had ever done, and it’s something that I felt like I needed to do.
LaShawn Daniels sadly passed last September. What was the best piece of advice he left you with?
He just wanted me to embrace the parts of me that I doubt. He wanted me to understand that the way I get a song across is my way, my tone, my inflections. My way of expressing myself is unique, and to embrace that and be honest in that and just take that on. And then he just always wanted me to just be confident in my gift, in what I’m here to do, which is to touch, heal and bless people with my music.
Your daughter, Sy’rai, is featured on the ladies anthem “High Heels.” What does that mean to you?
Oh my God. First of all, I’m just so proud to be her mom. Just beautiful to see her grow into this beautiful musician, this young artist that’s coming into her own. I just want her to be herself. I want her to follow her creative gut, her creative flow, and just try everything that she possibly can with her voice. And listen to her heart about her music. That’s what I tell her all the time.
We’re going to remember 2020 for a lot of things, but it’s become the year that women led the R&B pack. Why do you think Black female R&B artists like yourself, Jhené Aiko, Chloe x Halle, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor have been showing up in such a major way over the past few months?
I believe that music heals. Music is the language that we all speak. It is what we all need, and I feel like we need it more now than we ever have. This is the year where we all need to feel like we have something to get us through. … I was a little hesitant with putting out music in this time because, of course, you want to speak to the times. And I’m thinking, “My music is not about exactly what’s going on right now.” But then I thought, “But this is the time where people need to feel like they have something to just escape and just help them heal.” … So that’s what made me feel better about releasing [the album].
And I think that we don’t want to feel alone. We need to feel community, we need to feel togetherness, we need to feel love right now. And I think music is the best way to feel that. It’s the shortcut to feeling that right away.
Speaking of Chloe x Halle, do you have any advice for Halle Bailey as she takes a similar trajectory from R&B star to Disney princess with her casting as Ariel in The Little Mermaid live-action remake?
I think she needs to understand that she has everything that it takes to do everything that she’s meant to do. I think that she needs to keep positive people around her and to also stay positive and to not live her life for anyone but herself. And I mean that in a way where sometimes in this industry, we can get caught up in what everybody thinks that we should do.
But she should stay true to herself. I believe that her staying true to herself is the reason why she’s in a great position to do all of the things that she’s meant to do. And I think that she’s such a positive role model already. So I just wish her all the best. I absolutely love Halle and I love Chloe. I see so much of myself in Halle. Oh my God.
I’ve been seeing a lot of album covers paying homage to certain icons. When I think about Teyana’s, it’s totally Grace Jones meets Nefertiti. Once I saw yours for B7, I immediately thought Cleopatra meets Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. Were those the influences for you when coming up with this cover?
Absolutely! I had two huge dreams when I was a kid: One was to be a singer — a star — and the other was to meet Whitney Houston. … I’ve always been inspired by Whitney, and I always find ways to pay homage to her. And my album cover was one of the ways to subliminally acknowledge her without saying it. And it’s so interesting that so many people saw that and mentioned it. And it was just in my own, not quiet way, but I had no idea that people were going to pick that up like they did. … But I always find ways to acknowledge her, even when I’m not saying it. I’m always talking about Whitney.
Currently on the Billboard Hot 100, several female duets are hitting No. 1, a feat that only eight songs have ever accomplished, including “The Boy Is Mine.” Thinking back, did you have any idea how big of a hit it would become?
I didn’t know how big it was gonna be; I had no idea that it would be No. 1 for 13 weeks. I didn’t know. But I did know that it was a special record. I knew that it was a special record before I got on it, before Monica got on it. I knew just with the way the track sounded, I never heard anything like that.
But then when the song was written on top of it, and then … when it all came together, I was like, “OK, this is different.” And then when Monica put her stamp on it, you just heard the contrast between her and I. I knew that it was gonna be something special, but I had no idea it was going to do what it did. I’m still blown away today. It was an incredible moment that I kind of wish we would have seized even more.