On “No Tomorrow,” a minimalist cut off her new album, Brandy sings of acting on love with an apocalyptic-level urgency that feels all too relatable right now: “I’m gon’ blow ya phone up/In case there is no tomorrow.”
It’s the same energy the 41-year-old singer and actress, born Brandy Norwood, brought into the studio for B7 (out July 31), her first record since 2012’s Two Eleven. “I went into this album thinking, ‘If this were my last project, if this were the last time I would ever sing…what would I do?’" she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I used that [mindset] as a way to give my all. You can hear my entire heart on this. It took a while because I didn’t want to rush.”
Brandy was just 15 years old when her 1994 multiplatinum eponymous debut made her a star. Four years later she released her second album, Never Say Never, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and featured the chart-topping single “The Boy Is Mine,” a duet that played off of the rumored rivalry between Brandy and Monica. The song became the first No. 1 hit for both teen idols.
In the years since, Brandy has sold more than 40 million records and appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. But, like most artists with decades-spanning careers, she has also experienced the highs and lows of an industry that seems to outgrow stars as quickly as it creates them. Her subsequent releases never quite matched the success of her first two albums, and she parted ways with Epic after the disappointing sales of 2009’s Human.
B7, meanwhile, marks Brandy’s first independent release on her own Brand Nu Entertainment/eOne label (2012’s Two Eleven was released by RCA). “I was inspired by the opportunity to have control over my music and be the ultimate decision maker of my career," she says. "It’s not that I had no creative control before but I was inspired to be more hands-on with this project because I was approaching it as if it could be my last time making music.” Brandy co-wrote and -produced all but one of the new project’s 15 songs, and worked with an impressive group of collaborators, including Kim “Kaydence” Krysiuk, songwriter/producer Darhyl Camper Jr. (H.E.R., Mariah Carey), and the late LaShawn Daniels, the Grammy-winning producer and "Boy is Mine" co-writer who died last September in a car crash. “He was such a light,” says Brandy of Daniels." “He knew how to bring out the best in me. He always made me feel comfortable to dig deep outside of my comfort zone. And I listened. I just pray he’s proud of what I was able to complete.”
Krysiuk, who’s worked with Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, and contributed to more than half the songs on B7, noted that Brandy was a “breath of fresh air” in the studio. “When we wrote these records, we didn’t follow a ‘formula’ or song structure... we followed a feeling,” Krysiuk tells EW over email. “That alone really gave us the room to express our emotions without being confined to an industry standard.” As their work progressed, Krysiuk noticed Brandy stepping into her own as a songwriter. “She was able to gain a confidence in her writing, and it really shows in each song.”
Making B7 even more personal: The album marks the singer’s first time recording alongside her 18-year-old daughter, Sy’rai. When the subject turns to working together, Brandy’s voice lights up. “I had to keep my composure,” she says, of singing with Sy'rai. “To see how quick she is, how passionate she is — I was just sitting there trying not to cry. I had to keep my composure. But when I’m in my own space listening to this song, and it’s just me and the music, I can scream and cry. To hear us together, I’m blown away.” Sy’rai, who is featured on the empowering B7 track “High Heels,” begins college in Los Angeles this fall, and Brandy couldn’t feel more secure about the young adult she’s sending out into the world. “She's so grounded. She’s just a solid young lady and I trust her with her life.”
Sy’rai is one of only three featured artists on B7 (the other two: Chance the Rapper, who teamed with Brandy for the upbeat ode to parenthood “Baby Mama,” and Daniel Ceasar, on the skeptical ballad “Love Again.”) The result is a Brandy project that feels more “Brandy” than ever, with vocal production and arrangements that lean all the way into her instantly recognizable rich and smoky tone. “I wanted it to be honest and authentic,” she says. “I felt it was important for me to tell my own stories about my experiences with love and the different challenges I’ve faced. I have so much to give, I have so much to share. My voice is still here, my energy is still creative.” Even the album’s cover art is classic Brandy, with her name written in the same typeface as her first three records. (The cover image, of the singer in honey-brown beaded braids, is an homage to a headpiece her friend and mentor Whitney Houston wore in The Bodyguard.)
Brandy’s confidence to take the reins this time may stem from her recent decision to acquiesce to the “vocal bible” title bestowed upon her by fans, who hold her voice in the highest regard. That kind of praise can be hard to embrace, and she was at first reluctant to accept the designation. “I was a little bit taken aback,” she says. “It came with a huge amount of pressure and expectation to be 100 percent. I got nervous because you just want to find yourself in your creativity and not care so much about being perfect all the time. But I’ve dealt with all that and let it fester. Now I accept it graciously.”
That’s good news for the R&B community, which unabashedly stans Ms. Norwood. When her last album, Two Eleven, was met with unfavorable reviews from some music publications, Solange suggested that no one without extensive knowledge of Brandy’s catalog was qualified to review R&B music, tweeting, “Like you really should know about deep Brandy album cuts before you are giving a “grade” or a “score” to any R&B artist.” Jhené Aiko has cited Never Say Never as a favorite album and once told Billboard that Brandy has “the perfect voice.” And Erykah Badu has said that Brandy’s debut album was what she was listening to while working on her own first album, Baduizm. “Just musically, production-wise and the writing, it was really good,” Badu told ET in 2016. “I hadn't heard anything else like it.”
“To have artists like that — great artists, respect your work and shout you out to let you know you’ve inspired them in some way, it’s amazing,” says Brandy. “When I’m doing my music, if I get down, I can go to that.” She’s even been a major influence on her collaborators. “I had always been a Brandy fan," Krysiuk says. "The soothing texture of her voice definitely influenced my own sound.”
Of course, Brandy’s influence extends far past her vocals. Twenty-three years ago, she starred as Disney’s first Black princess in the TV film Cinderella and saw Mattel create a Brandy doll to be Barbie’s celebrity friend. Most notably, though, in an era when whole identities were formed based on which fictional TV teen you related to most, her series Moesha was appointment television for a generation of Black girls who didn’t see themselves on Beverly Hills, 90210or Dawson’s Creek.
Now more than ever, as the larger culture seems ready to have substantive conversations about representation, Brandy’s contribution can’t be overstated. “To look back now, there are so many things I’m proud of,” she says. “I’m grateful and truly blown away. I was so caught up in my own dream that I didn’t really know the kind of impact I was having on so many lives, especially the lives of Black women and Black girls.”