Brandy Returns With Creative Freedom and New Ambitions on ‘B7’ 

The current R&B landscape wouldn’t be quite what it is without Brandy Norwood. Artists like Solange, Frank Ocean, and H.E.R. have all cited the artist simply known as Brandy as an inspiration. Anyone who lived through the ‘90s should know her all too well. Her 1993 self-titled debut and the 1998 followup, “Never Say Never,” catapulted her to stardom. There was the sitcom “Moesha” and her massive duet with Monica, “The Boy Is Mine,” which became one of history’s longest-running number one singles. Brandy went on to such feats as starring in Disney’s  Whitney Houston-produced “Cinderella” adaptaction. She continued to release music throughout the next decade, but wound up in legal struggles with her former label, Chameleon Entertainment, which led to an eight year break. Since her last album, 2012’s “Two Eleven,” Brandy has spent time on Broadway, playing Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” and came out of a long battle for complete artistic freedom. Her latest album, “B7,” is released under Brandy’s own label, “Brand Nu.” The songs correspondingly showcase her distinctive creative voice better than anything yet, taking new liberties and new ambitions.

There’s a marked difference in Brandy’s subject matter this time around, more personal and reaching unprecedented depths. Finally free from label constrictions, her songs ring with a new authenticity. The majority of the new songs deal with romantic struggles, with an overall assertive central sentiment, and a couple tracks that celebrate motherhood. Opener “Saving All My Love” sets off with vivid jazz flourishes. Brandy’s voice is immediately, impeccably smooth and featherlight, gliding over a swirling guitar loop, and locking into infectious repetition with a hermetic cool. She begins, “Sorry for my tardy / Long time I was brokenhearted,” acknowledging the wait between albums, and moving directly to the offered reason. Brandy sings, “your love, your love, your love,” in a way that might give the wrong impression, until we get to the line, “I ain’t saving all my love.” She dwells on the topic on “Unconditional Oceans” with a similar tactic, singing, “You are unconditional in every way,” but then dramatically recontextualizing the statement by adding, “You lost.” The musical textures are refreshingly colorful, with a bleepy, funky melodic tag, around which Brandy sings a spiraline melody. 

There are light moments too, however. “Rather Be” is downright funky, with a hard-hitting, minimal pulse and synth bass. Brandy sounds light as always, but now in subject matter too, with a chorus of “I’d rather be kissing you” that she sings at once in her usual airtight manner and in an elevated, impassioned overdub, colliding over a slickly stuttering beat. Interspersed in the albums are three short ambient tracks, titled “All My Life,” parts one through three, which serve to offer a bit of extra, ruminative space, among which the core tracks elegantly arrange themselves. Brandy’s delicate voice has the type of aura that invites for such measures. 

The songs abound with elegant sonics. “Lucid Dreams” builds itself around a water fountain trickle, with wheezing organs. There’s a type of spacious minimalism, and Brandy sighs seductively, and sings knotty melodies over sweeping choral backdrops, capturing the essence of a heated past romance effectively in lines like “Used to write our name in car fog.” “Borderline,” the album’s second single, settles deeper into such grooves. Brandy’s vocal melodies are complex in their architecture, full of short stops and expressive embellishments, with adlibs that emerge and vanish in additional voices, although Brandy makes it sound like child’s play. She returns to relationship drama, and continues to elicit and exchange emotions with craft, singing, “I’m the most jealous girl / In the whole wide world” in a candied tone that captures the crisscross of sentiments in heated moments. A sprawling, extended outro fleshes out the feelings. Both “Borderline” and “No Tomorrow” are effortlessly catchy. The latter features a memorable chorus full of priceless lines like “I’m gon’ blow your phone up / In case there is no tomorrow,” and is stunning in the way jagged pieces fall into elegant arrangements of vocals, resolving when Brandy finally declares, “I feel so beautiful.”

There are nods to various eras of R&B, in the musical stylings. “Say Something,” a meditation on communication in a relationship, begins with a jazzy piano and horns intro, and leans slightly into retro fare. “I Am More” adds some rock ‘n’ roll edge, with the beat taking shape around a sample of an electric guitar flourish. Brandy steps out of character in an ending bit that finds her singing with an unanticipated attitude. A classic line is “Never catch me in a group singin’ with some other chicks,” tying Brandy’s solo artist status to themes of self-empowerment that emerge over the course of the album. 

A surefire highlight is “High Heels,” which finds Brandy dueting with her own daughter, Sy’rai, who happens to be the same age Brandy was when she debuted. There’s an irresistible, instrumental refrain of swiveling strings like nothing else on the album, and Brandy and Sy’rai put on a grand display, exchanging verses. They sound remarkably alike, and when they unite in the chorus, it’s a proud moment of legacy, as Brandy passes on positive, self-empowering advice to her daughter, condensing them into snippets like “It’s me who validates me.” Brandy has expressed the importance of Sy’rai not feeling rushed to enter the public spotlight as her mother did, but it’s quite obvious, Sy’rai is headed to big things. Brandy continues to take inspiration from her daughter on “Baby Mama,” which finds her extending some words of general support for mothers. Chance the Rapper drops a verse, playfully calling out guys who might not fully appreciate their “baby mamas.” He infuses plenty of style into a short vese, switching between sung segments and quick triplets, pronounced with his distinctive, laidback swagger. The way Brandy bends her notes with such verve on the titular phrase is itself a powerful statement, in line with the assertive message of the song.

The album’s few guest appearances are all impactful, with the last coming from Daniel Caesar, one of a new generation of R&B songwriters who has cited Brandy as an inspiration. The album takes a more reconciliatory tone than on the first few tracks, with Caesar and Brandy painting a rosy picture, joining, “I promise we’ll find love again, love again.” It should be noted Caesar’s debut album “Freudian,” featured a song titled “We Find Love” about the falling out of a relationship. while “Love Again” strikes like a promising sequel. Brandy finally returns to the struggles of the opener. Whereas that song began with beats and effervescence, “Bye Bipolar” finishes the matter in a stripped, dramatic outpouring. The chorus of “Bye bye, bye bipolar” cleverly encapsulates the decision to move on, past the drama of a failed relationship, and Brandy takes a journey, showcasing her full range, and ending on the resolute note, “Never had your last name to mine / I’m saying never.

“B7” is a triumph for Brandy, well worth the long wait. Finally at the forefront of her own work, she takes on new proportions, reminding us why she rose to such prominence in the first place, and proceeding forward. The degree of nuance, complexity, and elegance in Brandy’s vocals set her apart from most of her peers. Her voice itself is magnetic, and her melodies are filled with melismatic nuance, highly stylized adlibs, and dense layering. The new songs touch on sounds of different eras, but generally come across as both contemporary and timeless. The contributions from Sy’rai, Chance the Rapper, and Daniel Caesar all make for thrilling collaborations. Brandy’s lyrics take on new autobiographical freedoms and emotional depths, and reflect an overall theme of empowerment and independence that is consistent with the background of the album, and the calibre of the singer. With maternal themes and a general air of maturity alongside an evolution with the times, the record is a welcome return from an artist who defined an era, and continues to stay relevant. 

B7” is available July 31 on Apple Music.