Like many of her fans 20 years later, Brandy can still remember the first time she heard her debut single “I Wanna Be Down” on the radio in the late summer of 1994.
“I remember being at Taco Bell, in the drive-thru, and hearing it on the radio, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on the radio!’” Brandy, now 35, recalls to Billboard. “Remember how DJs, they talk in the beginning and the song is playing a little bit? And then they’d say, ‘Here’s Brandy with a new song.’ It was like, ‘Thank you God, this is everything for me.’ And I was with my friends at Taco Bell. It felt like it belonged there.”
The single helped introduce the then-15-year-old’s self-titled debut Brandy (released Sept. 27, 1994) and herald its singer as the latest fresh face of R&B at a time when youth was just starting to rule the airwaves. Fellow 15-year-old Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number had just been released months prior, a 14-year-old upstart named Usher had just released his own self-titled debut in late August, pre-teen vocal trio Immature scored a top hit 10 with ballad “Never Lie” and a 13-year-old named Monica was waiting in the wings to release her debut Miss Thang the following summer.
But there was something special about Brandy, from its throwback, funk-soul production (led by then-21-year-old writer-producer Keith Crouch and R&B group Somethin’ For The People, best known for slow jam “My Love is The Shhh”) to the smoky, evocative vocals coming from its lead performer. Though Brandy grew up idolizing mezzo sopranos Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and even tried to score a record contract with Atlantic’s A&R director Darryl Williams at the age of 12 by auditioning with their songs, it took her a few years to embrace the subtle power of her own alto range.
“I remember always wanting to sing higher than I could. I accepted the fact that I was an alto and did what I could and tried to perfect that as much as I could,” she says. “I practiced everyday. I imagined each corner of my room being a little piece of an audience. It was just great to be that inspired and have that drive.”
Brandy took that newfound confidence into a second audition for Atlantic’s Williams, and the results sealed her fate.
“I went back to Darryl when I was 14 and I sang ‘Greatest Love Of All’ and ‘Vision Of Love’ for him and Sylvia Rhone,” Brandy says. “Of course, it was about 19 keys down from what Whitney and Mariah were singing, but I gave it my all and they signed me. And the rest was a moment. My dream.”
Brandy’s wide-eyed innocence and songs of first crushes and heartbreak connected almost instantly, and proved to be a major breakthrough for the singer. The album yielded her four top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including three top 10s (“I Wanna Be Down,” “Brokenhearted” and “Baby”), and two No. 1s on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart. The album itself was certified double platinum and spent 89 weeks on the Billboard 200, and helped Brandy net two Grammy nominations the following year, including a nod for Best New Artist.
Brandy has released five full-lengths since her debut, and is in the early process of recording Album No. 7 (“I’m in the reinventing phase right now,” she says), but looking back 20 years later there still ain’t nothing like the first time.
Here, Brandy shares the stories of every song, from rushing a session to make a Magic Mountain play-date and working with a young Robin Thicke to her recent reunion with the ladies of the “I Wanna Be Down” remix and a new gospel rendition of a fan-favorite album cut.
1. “Movin On”
“I was inspired by Whitney Houston and [gospel group] the Clark Sisters, and trying to do everything they were doing — the runs, the range, everything. It was a soul song, and the end of that song really shows where I got my inspiration. It’s very Clark Sister-y.”
“I remember being in the studio with Keith and hearing this track, and I didn’t like it at first because I was afraid that I wasn’t old enough. But when I started to sing it, I was thinking about this guy I liked and it started to connect. That was fun. It was a cute baby crush, but I was able to pull from that feeling. Keith would say, ‘I mean for real, you can hear when you’re just trying to do vocals and it doesn’t have passion behind it. Just pull from your own life and you’ll connect more.’”
3. “Best Friend”
“That was about [my brother] Ray J. It was supposed to be a duet. That didn’t work out, but it started off that way. And it had that flute and everything, it was different. I love singing in my lowest register, that’s where I got a chance to play around with that. I loved ‘Best Friend’ because I got a chance to do my own backgrounds. I come from a church where I grew up singing a capella. So I love playing with different notes, and feeling that union with different harmonies and sounds. I love singing backgrounds more than I do lead. And this song was the first time I’d felt that feeling outside of the church.”
4. “I Wanna Be Down”
“I had to be convinced that this was the right first single, because I loved ‘Best Friend’ so much. And my lead was a challenge, because I had to do it twice. I stacked my lead to sound a little bit stronger. I loved the melody, but it took awhile for me to get why it needed to be the first connection with the fans… It felt so good hearing it on the radio that first time at Taco Bell. It felt like it belonged there.”
On her recent reunion with “I Wanna Be Down” remix collaborators MC Lyte, Yo Yo and Queen Latifah during the taping of the BET Hip Hop Awards, airing Oct. 14.
“It was an epic moment, as scary as it was, 20 years later because it’s a different time. It took me back to the time when were on the set. I didn’t record with the ladies in the studio, so I saw them at the video set, so seeing them again it felt like were back at the video shoot with the white background. It felt like I was 15 again. I’m this kid, performing with people that I respect and admire and look up to. I relived that moment that we were all on set was starstruck to meet all of them. I had no idea what their verses meant, what they were saying. To share that with the new generation and the old-school generation, we were all there as one. It was awesome. I can’t wait for people to see it — just from the pictures people are freaking out. It feels really good to feel that connection again.
5. “I Dedicate (Part I)”
“I was upset! Because I wanted ‘I Dedicate’ to be a full song and they broke it up. After the album came out, that’s what the fans they were saying, ‘Why can’t ‘I Dedicate’ be a full song?’ I don’t know, I think that was a little bit of a mistake it should have been a full song.”
“The original version, I was actually on my way to Magic Mountain with some friends, and I’m like, ‘Yo I don’t wanna come to the studio. I just wanna be a kid today.’ And Keith was like, ‘No you gotta come to the studio we’re in a time crunch. We gotta get this done.’ So, I go in and because I wanna go to Magic Mountain so badly, I’m tellin’ myself, “‘Look, you gonna have to do this in one or two takes because we gotta get to this amusement park!’ I was in there for about an hour or two. But I actually like the album version better than the remix vocally, I was really focused on getting the right vocals so I could get to where I need to go.”
On the Soulpower Remix, which featured a duet with Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men, whom she briefly dated as well.
“Boyz II Men was my favorite, Wanya was one of my favorite singers, and we talked about doing a duet and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we have this track for ‘Brokenhearted Remix,’ get on this. This is the one.’ We went in and we did it and it was a different vibe; I was a little more vulnerable on the track with Wanya. He’s a beast of a vocalist so I had to really come with it.”
7. “I’m Yours”
“Damon Thomas produced ‘I’m Yours.’ I loved the melody, I felt like it sounded like a huge ballad at that time. I’m not trying to put it on the same level of the ‘Greatest Love Of All’ or anything, but it sounded like that kind of song for me. And Damon Thomas was a great vocal producer because he pushed me. I was trying to do my best and give it my all, especially then because I had everything to prove.”
8. “Sunny Day”
“‘Sunny Day’ was one of those songs where I had to push myself because it was so high for me, but I loved the beat, I loved how it just felt like a hip-hop track with R&B melodies and R&B verses. And I loved performing it. I remember performing it at a fair, that was a great moment, sunshine, it was outside, we did fun choreography. I remember it like it was yesterday, but I don’t think I’ve performed it since that day.”
9. “As Long As You’re Here”
“I took five or six stabs at that song. I didn’t nail it the first couple of times, so I had to go in and really try to get through that whole fear thing. My nerves were real bad.”
10. “Always On My Mind”
“That was one of my favorite songs on the album, it was one of my favorite moments it was backgrounds it was lead like a heavenly melody to that song. In fact, I just did a song with this amazing gospel group that Kirk Franklin produces and manages, The Walls Group. They’re these unbelievable kids and the information they have vocally is insane. We did a song called ‘God On My Mind’ and they took a bit of ‘Always On My Mind’ and we kind of re-did it — it was amazing to see that song live on.”
11. “I Dedicate (Part II)”
“I’m trying to remember if it ever was a full song… No, it wasn’t because I recorded it at three different times and three different moments. If it was it would already be on iTunes for ya.”
12. “Love Is On My Side”
“Come on Robin Thicke! Another Damon Thomas production. It was vocally challenging. I needed to give everything to that song. I was a little bit intimidated because it was so musical and had drums and organs, it was a lot going on, I had to push myself to give it what it deserved. To see Robin doing well now, and still being able to do his thing and write his own songs, it’s so amazing. He was 17, writing way back when, we had some great times as artists.”
13. “Give Me You”
“This feels like a past life. It’s kind of awkward talking about yourself. But ‘Give Me You,’ that was another gospel approach, with the call and response.”
14. “I Dedicate (Part III)”
“We need another 15 to 20 anniversary to review the other ones, Full Moon, Never Say Never… I got so many stories for you, child.”