20 Years of Brandy’s ‘Full Moon’: How the ‘Vocal Bible’ Set the Gold Standard For Modern R&B Vocalists

This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here with a look at one of the year’s most bar-raising full-length releases, Brandy’s Full Moon, with help from some of the people responsible for it and a few of the many artists who were influenced by it.

When R&B singer/songwriter Melanie Fiona first entered the music industry in 2001, years before she was a Grammy-winning artist, the Toronto native was fresh out of high school. At the time, she was beginning to consider what singing would entail as an actual profession – beyond throwing on a Whitney Houston record at home and pushing her voice to its limit while singing along. Over the next year, she locked in on working out a career plan that found a place for her raspy, wide-ranging vocal palette. But when Brandy released her Full Moon album in March 2002, something shifted creatively.

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“This album, it just gave me the vocal exercise and the vocal bar set [for] what it is that I always wanted to feel I could sing along to an album with – something that I could hope to produce one day and sing,” Fiona tells Billboard. Enthralled by the record, she ran it from top to bottom persistently, studying every nook and cranny of the harmonies, riffs, and ad-libs throughout Full Moon like it was scripture. “They call it a ‘Vocal Bible,’ but really this album was that for me.”

Brandy had undergone a transformation of her own when she headed into the studio to record Full Moon in June 2001. It had been three years since the 1998 release of her multi-platinum-selling sophomore effort Never Say Never, which housed the biggest hit of her career: the chart-topping and Grammy Award-winning Monica duet “The Boy Is Mine.” Her starring role in the hit sitcom Moesha had officially come to an end in May 2001 and she’d been off the grid for two years, refocusing on self-healing after a tumultuous time of mental anguish.

When Brandy returned, recharged and having just turned 23 years old, there was an unrelenting creative energy flowing through her. Her championed vocal range shifted from being an impressive feat for a young performer – one who had first debuted with striking talent at only 15 – to undeniable proof that she was a leader in her field, creating a blueprint for generations of artists to follow. Two decades after its release, the innovative team who were in the studio as it was being made – as well as the musicians who still listen in admiration, integrating Brandy’s influence into their own work with sponge-like absorbency – acknowledge the often underemphasized truth of the matter: Full Moon constructed the gold standard for modern R&B vocals.

“A lot of people talk about the harmonies, but I think the way Brandy sang – her delivery on her verses was cutting edge, too,” says Maroon 5 keyboardist and soul soloist PJ Morton. “For me, it just felt like all the stuff that musicians and singers would play around with, but not actually put on the record.”

The goal of unlocking a unique sound, one that was both innovative in setting Brandy apart from the other players on the field and progressive in shifting the goalposts forward following Never Say Never, rested at the core of creating Full Moon, according to Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, who worked on the album as both A&R and executive producer. “With both of those albums, there was definitely a real effort to push the boundaries as much as we could and be trailblazing and a leader sonically, so we’d have an R&B and pop record that just didn’t sound like anything else,” he recalls.

For Brandy, the key to moving forward wasn’t to start from scratch, but to build on the foundation she had established with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins when the superstar producer helmed the majority of Never Say Never. They had fallen into such a synchronized rhythm as a collaborative pair, heading into Full Moon, that making music together was almost too easy for them. They knew what would work, but sought a challenge in pushing the boundaries of the record to their limit. Brandy wanted to explore the lower side of her register and activate different elements of her voice. Meanwhile, Jerkins was coming off of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” and wanted to push himself towards a more human sonic approach, ditching the formulaic process of quantizing, which arranges notes in line with a grid to remove any rhythmic imperfections.

Jerkins was in the process of finishing the 2001 Michael Jackson album Invincible when he locked in with Brandy for Full Moon. As he navigated between both artist’s sessions at Miami’s Hit Factory, he carried over the sonic tricks he’d picked up from the King of Pop. When “It’s Not Worth It” was scrapped from Invincible, it ended up in Brandy’s hands with Jackson’s ad-libs still attached. “The way I was recording backgrounds with Michael Jackson, I had never recorded backgrounds like that in my life,” Jerkins says. “I remember the first day telling Brandy, ‘This is how we’re going to do the backgrounds.” She was hesitant for a moment, but he easily won her over: “I was like, ‘Yo, this is how Mike was doing the backgrounds.’ And then she was like, ‘Okay, yes, wait let’s do it.’ Because the bar that Michael had was so high that if he was doing it, then let’s go for it.”

Jerkins’ divided attention never dimmed the excitement of creating greatness with Brandy and his Darkchild songwriting and production team – namely Kenisha Pratt, Nora Payne and his close collaborator LaShawn Daniels, who is credited as a vocal producer alongside the singer on all but two cuts on the record. The boisterous lead single “What About Us?” arrived as the first offering from the record, drawing comparisons to Janet Jackson’s “Control” and stirring up anticipation for the complete record. Jerkins’ choppy pacing – showing off his new production approach – paired with Brandy’s intensely smoldering delivery pushed “What About Us?” from its No. 42 Hot 100 debut to No. 7 over a seven-week period.

Its follow up single, “Full Moon,” which peaked at No. 18 on the Hot 100, shines in the context of the strategically organized tracklist. As the track bleeds into “I Thought” at the top of the album, a classic phone call interlude plays. “Listen, I want you to check out this track for me,” Jerkins tells Brandy on the song, playing the latter song’s thumping beat. Co-writer Fred Jerkins III turns it up so she can really feel it and she swiftly returns: “When can we do it?” The producer hits back with exhilarated urgency: “Do it now.”

“I purposefully told the engineer who was recording for us on that song to make it sound like it’s coming from a very small place – something, again, I learned from Michael – so that way, when it comes on, it comes on impact,” Jerkins explains of the transition. “If you’re the listener, it’s almost like watching a movie and you hear those big effects that happen in films.” Throughout the production process, before a song was even complete, the producer was plotting out a way to tie the next track in using subtle links between various tempos and rhythms. “I was actually writing it down like a mad scientist creating a formula,” he says. It was a meticulous process. When the album was complete, Jerkins drove from Philadelphia, where it had been mixed, to New Jersey with it on repeat in the car. But by the time he was there, he hated it. He headed to Miami and gave it another pass at the Hit Factory Criteria, finding immediate satisfaction in the new arrangement of details in the final mix.

The transition from “Full Moon” into “I Thought” held the crux of the album together to set the tone for the rest of the record. The former song was actually the product of an entirely separate creative collaboration, one between Brandy and producer Mike City. The single was one of a handful of songs the pair created together for Full Moon. “You gotta be on top of your game for her to respect what you do, because she’s a grade-A artist and she’s not playing about her instrument, her voice, and she’s focused,” the producer says firmly. “And if you can pull that out of her, then you’re gonna pull out the best of her.”

But the celebrated title track was almost shelved. A week after he got a call informing him that none of his songs would appear on the record, Mike City says, Brandy told him the album would be named after his cut, as a loophole to force its inclusion. “Maybe that’s why they didn’t want it on the album, because it didn’t sound like all the other stuff that was going on,” he says. “But in actuality, it helped break the ice. Even where they put the song at – they made sure to put it right after the intro because it didn’t sound like nothing – it was different.”

She had gravitated towards “Full Moon” with an urgency similar to what was expressed in the phone call snippet, knocking out the hook on the spot and hounding Mike City daily for the completed track. “I was just trying to make sure every line was just what I wanted to say, then translate through her what she wanted to say,” he says, remembering the hunger the singer had when returning to the music scene. When the horn-filled track was done, Brandy took over as vocal producer herself, Mike City says, using her voice as an instrument to mimic the music and stack harmonic nuances in the background.

“It became this combination of her voice with the instruments that became this sonic fusion that I can’t explain. I just know that I had never heard it before,” Jerkins says of Brandy’s vocal imitations. “All of us were geeked up in the studio when we were doing this album because it was like: imagine finding something in the midst of creating and you’re wondering where you’re going to go, and then you find something and you’re like, ‘Whoa, we got to do that again.’ Well, we got to do that.”

When Brandy heard something she could toy with and elevate, she had to have it. Producer and engineer Stuart Brawley and composer Jason Derlatka had been playing “Come a Little Closer” for possible placement on *NSYNC’s final album Celebrity when the singer overheard it while walking down the hall. “She came running in and was like, what is this song? I need to cut this song,” Brawley recalls, adding that Brandy also requested creative control over its vocal arrangement with Jerkins. The engineer admits that not being in the room after sending the track off made him slightly nervous. “It’s a fine line when you get into vocal arranging, or even just a vocal performance,” Brawley says. “How much liberty are you going to take with the ‘Real Melody?’” The final version contained different harmonies than what the original composers had envisioned, but Brawley says “Brandy really knew the line where she could stylize it and make it her own, without completely changing the melody of the song.”

Brandy, who did not respond to request for involvement in this story, is credited as a producer on all but one song on Full Moon, bringing her own vocal expertise to production from Warryn Campbell, Keith Crouch, and Robert “Big Bert” Smith in addition to Jerkins and Daniels. “She was able to just take us on a journey that I don’t think we had ever really experienced before. Her harmonies and the way she was crescendoing, the way she was using her voice as an instrument – it was incredible,” Jerkins says. “You would think that she was a full on graduate from the Berklee School of Music, and was a teacher, because she’s hearing every intricate detail of what she’s trying to do and what she’s trying to accomplish.”

Kallman, who has worked at Atlantic Records for over three years, still hasn’t seen anything quite like it. Even in the company of some of pop and R&B’s biggest hitmakers, Brandy was the key element that took Full Moon from exceptional to untouchable. “Post-[Full Moon], I think it’s very few and far between artists that are able to self-produce themselves in the way Brandy was able to,” he says. “Usually it takes a producer who’s looking at things with a different lens and objectively coming in with their own opinions and points of view on how to execute.”

Before Full Moon had hit the shelves and airwaves, there was a feeling behind-the-scenes that something truly special was taking shape. “I remember everybody being so laser focused on blowing this thing up and everybody was so excited because we had such great songs,” says Andrew Feigenbaum, who worked as an A&R on the album while assisting Kallman. “I don’t know if you would think that people would be excited about every project, but that doesn’t really happen like this. People knew it was gonna be big.” Although critics were initially divided about the record in the shadow of Never Say Never, the general public launched Full Moon to a No. 2 Billboard 200 debut and a top spot on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, moving 156,000 units in its first week. Brandy’s highest debut yet, it spent 30 weeks on the former chart and was certified platinum by the RIAA within a month of its release, thanks in part to the success of its lead singles.

Still, Jerkins says, “What’s crazy is that Full Moon never got a chance to really go to where it could have went.” While the album was effectively a success, it simmered out long before it could quite reach the same heights as Never Say Never, passing through with little indication of the slow-burning cultural impact to come. Towards the end of the project’s recording, Brandy became pregnant with her first child, bringing the record’s promotional campaign largely to halt before “When You Touch Me” and “I Thought” could be pushed as singles. “It became kind of stalemate,” he says. “So it’s crazy that an album that is somewhat critically acclaimed, and such an inspiration and motivation to so many musicians now, never really got the commercial push that it really deserved.”

As a holistic blueprint, the influence of Full Moon has extended beyond singers exploring the expanse of their vocal range. It’s also become a crash course for producers chasing a timeless, lightning in a bottle sound on modern pop and R&B records.

When Tommy Brown was gearing up to lead production on Ariana Grande’s sixth studio album Positions (2020), he turned to Jerkins, his longtime mentor, for some Full Moon-era advice. “I was wondering why the beats were such a thumbprint,” he says. “I feel like that’s a time capsule of: It hasn’t been done before and it hasn’t been replicated after. It just stands where it is.”

Having worked with the singer since her debut Yours Truly (2013), Brown witnessed a similar artistic journey in Grande and gained invaluable insight into vocal production from Daniels, who mentored the producer and songwriter before his death in 2019. “[He] opened my mind up to vocals and stacking and harmonies,” Brown adds. “When I’ve seen him do it in the process, it just blew my mind.” While Grande may be largely unmatched in the modern vocal ring, the maxed out layers of harmonies and intricate vocal stacks throughout Positions are far from subtle in their homage.

In the two decades since Full Moon was released, Brandy has been cited as an inspiration by JoJo, Jazmine Sullivan, India.Arie, Sean Garrett, Tank, and more – Jerkins even recalls James Faunteleroy telling him he didn’t become a writer until he heard the album.

“How I’ve always looked at it when people call her the ‘Vocal Bible’ is that it’s the risk taking. It’s the placement, it’s her choices, it’s where to sing, it’s where not to sing – and it’s easier said than done,” says Morton. “When you talk about the Bible, you’re talking about something that people follow. And I think there’s a bunch of Brandy followers – Brandy-lites – out there following in her good news.”

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