The message that night was unmistakable: Brandy Rayana Norwood, the genre-defining R&B artist who has ridden the highest highs and the lowest lows the entertainment business has to offer, is back. After an eight-year stretch between albums, the 41-year-old is a household name again.
In the span of a month, the “Borderline” singer went from “Where is she?” to “Where isn’t she?” She released her seventh studio album, “B7,” on July 31. The very next day, Netflix (finally) began streaming all six seasons of “Moesha,” the ’90s sitcom that diversified the Girl Next Door trope forever and made Brandy a teenage star. In August, the “Verzuz” battle between Brandy and Monica, another trademark ’90s R&B artist, broke records in viewership and touted a cameo by Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris. Then Billboard called.
It had been years since Brandy performed on a stage that big. Sure, the coronavirus pandemic nixed the live audience, but the nerves were still there. Her only goal was to walk away feeling good about what she’d done, to empty out everything and leave it behind her.
“I try to do everything like it’s the last thing that I’m going to do,” Norwood said in an interview with The Washington Post. And there have been moments when she thought her time had come and gone — that she would never sing again, never stand in front of an audience who cared, never get to share what she considers her God-given gift.
“There have been times where other people have intentionally tried to make me feel like I’m a has-been, and a part of me — the weaker parts of me — bought into that,” Norwood said. “I really believed that. I really took time off. I was lost. I didn’t know what my sound was. I didn’t even know if I was important enough in music to put together a body of work.”
Record scratch. Brandy, the singer whose vast cohort of fans call her “the Vocal Bible” because of the depth of her sound, didn’t think she mattered?
“It’s those feelings that you get when you’re not all the way sure. I doubted what I thought was good,” Norwood explained. “Those were my lowest of lows — to not know who I was as an artist, to not understand what people are saying about me. Why are you calling me ‘the Vocal Bible’? What do you mean, my tone? To not understand myself, that’s hell.”
For fans, one of Brandy’s biggest highs as an artist was her third album, “Full Moon,” a magnum opus and master class. It dropped the summer of 2002, a year after “Moesha” was canceled and three months before she became a mother with the birth of her daughter, Sy’rai. It cemented the singer’s transition from “Cinderella” to someone who could sang. Produced by Rodney Jerkins, “Full Moon” introduced Brandy’s now trademark vocal stacking, gospel-inspired runs and buttery tone.
“She plays with her voice in all these different ways to create an experience that is more than just ‘I’m going to go up to a mic and sing a song.’ She tells a story with her voice,” explained vocal coach and Brandy stan, O’Neil Gerald Donald. “Brandy’s approach to detail and nuances is what people have loved and what people have carried into their own sound.”
The singer’s signature sound is raspy and layered. Donald described it as “the cold breath that you see in front of your face in the winter. It’s like a fog that dissipates but is somehow still accurate and clear.”
Female artists such as H.E.R., Tori Kelly, JoJo, Jazmine Sullivan and Jessie J have all pointed to Brandy as an influence, proving that her impact on the music world was and is far-reaching. But it took Norwood several steps back to see it for herself. It’s been eight years since her last album, almost 14 since she was involved in a fatal car crash that left one woman dead, and nearly 18 since she told the world (and Oprah) she was married to the father of her daughter when she wasn’t.
“There was a time where I was learning about myself through the public eye — through Moesha, and then there’s this Brandy thing, and then there’s me, the person that’s inside. Who is who? I was living my life for everybody, and I’m not there anymore,” Norwood said. “Spiritually, I was removed from the business for periods of time because I chose what was best for the real me.
“There were times where I felt like fame was gonna beat me,” she continued. “I thought I was going to fall off the map, let alone the cliff. But I’m an anomaly and I’m here and I’m strong.”
So how did she get here? Years ago, a friend introduced her to the book “The Artist’s Way,” a decades-old self-help guide to creativity. Norwood started doing “morning pages,” a ritual of writing pages of stream of consciousness right after you wake up. There was poetry, lyrics, honesty and a reckoning. Even the sound of the pencil on the page was like music to her.
“It gets those negative thoughts out, and after I embraced that, I started to recognize how honest I had become with myself,” she said. “You can’t fool yourself. My writing started to get deeper and deeper.”
Then came her 2015 turn as the fame-seeking vixen Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” The discipline of Broadway’s grueling schedule locked the singer into focus. Performing eight shows a week was somehow freeing, and the fans waiting outside the stage door made the connection immediate. Her voice, she said, had never been more clear, the singing never more effortless. “If I can do this with Roxie,” she thought, “then you better be doing this with Brandy.”
In the years following that career-defining moment, everything started to shift, much in the same way the entire world seems to be shifting now. We’ve been given time to reflect on the inequality, hurt and divisiveness that has been pervasive, Norwood said, and to “use our voices to change this world to the way it’s really meant for us to live it.”
After years of questioning her own power, she’s on her “Martin Luther King” now, gearing up not so much to preach as to pass on wisdom.
“I think this is a great time for us as Black women. So many of us are so powerful. … This is the time to just be loud about it,” Norwood said. “Be loud about your Blackness, be loud about your beauty, be loud about your confidence, your humility, your stand, your opinions, your facts. They matter. And even when it didn’t seem like they mattered, they matter.”