Brandy’s ascent in the Nineties was meteoric. Following the release of her self-titled debut, which spawned an early hit with the single “Baby,” she landed a starring role on the popular sitcom Moesha. By the release of 1998’s Never Say Never, she was on her way to becoming a full-fledged film star as well, after starring in the Whitney Houston-produced Cinderella adaptation. Her sophomore LP would feature “The Boy Is Mine,” a massive duet with Monica that would become a karaoke staple, and her film appearances became bigger in the years following her Disney debut.
By the 2000s, Brandy’s musical output became more ambitious, but she was soon plagued with label troubles that led to an eight year hiatus following 2012’s Two Eleven. Chameleon Entertainment, her former label, claimed she breached her contract by releasing music without their permission, while she countersued over unpaid production costs. A settlement in 2017 led to Brandy realizing what musical freedom actually looks like: creating her own imprint, Brand Nu, and becoming the primary writer and creative force behind her long-awaited new LP, B7.
The final product is Brandy Norwood at her purest: an eclectic mix of modern and classic R&B sounds strung together by her distinctive, powerful voice. As Brandy prepared for the release while self-isolating in Los Angeles with her family, she spoke with Rolling Stone about what it took to get to this moment.
This is the longest between two albums for you in your career. When would you say that the process for this album started for you?
I feel like it started about three years ago. I was balancing television and studio time. I put everything I could into this project. It was so freeing for me, because I did get a chance to really dig in and write from my heart of hearts. I was able to really get a lot of things off of my chest, really use music as a way to escape and heal.
I really don’t like that it took me this long, but I’m glad that I didn’t rush it because when you’ve been absent from music for so long you want to make sure that it’s your best work. For me, I approached this album like this is my last project. What would I want it to sound like? How would I want to express myself? I took my time in that way.
There were a lot of legal and personal issues over the last eight years that kept new music delayed. What was the original plan after Two Eleven? Were you planning on releasing a new album soon after, or did the issues need to be taken care of immediately?
It was immediate for me to deal with my label issues. I really wanted to get myself in a place where I could feel I could be creatively free. That was very, very important to me. At first, I had to muster up enough courage to actually get that process going. I had to find that type of bravery, and I finally got to a place where I did, and I’m so grateful for that. Then I also wanted to be inspired in my music. I just didn’t want to start creating music and not feel inspired, not feel moved by life or the things that I was going through.
What were the actions that you had to take in your life, besides getting out of that bad label contract, to feel that freedom on a day-to-day basis?
I went to Broadway, and Broadway was an eye-opener for me. [Brandy played Roxie Hart in Chicago during several stints between 2015 and 2017] I had never felt so inspired the way I felt when I was on Broadway, I felt so free every night when I was performing. Just being able to feel my voice in that way, being able to feel a crowd in that way, it opened up a lot of dreams that I didn’t know I still had. From there, I started to go into the studio again and record. I released a few songs, just for the fun of it, just to feel the interaction with my fans. From there, I really wanted to create a body of work.
I went forward in that light and I was able to team up with eOne and create my own imprint, my own label from there and start the process of creating B7. It took a long time, but I’m so grateful that I’m in this position right now, and I feel so proud of the work that I was able to do in this time.
Along with creating your own imprint, you also reclaimed independence as a writer on this album. What was the experience like for you?
To be able take on a lot of the writing, it felt so natural for me because it felt like music for me was a way for me to just get so much out, so much of my story, so much of what I wanted to say. It just poured out of me so naturally, and I trusted it. I didn’t really think about “Is this song going to be a hit? Is it going to be this? Is it going to be that?” I just wanted to be honest, and I just wanted to see what it would be like to just write my own story.
I was supported by my writing team and my producers, they were open to just supporting me in this amazing journey. I just felt so free just being able to just use music as a way to just purge. I was so vulnerable, and hearing the songs back, I feel the honesty. I feel like it’s really me, it’s really who I am. It feels good to give in this way, in my own truth.
One of the features on the album is your own daughter, who sings on “High Heels” with you. What was it like to be in the studio with her?
So much fun! So exciting just to hear what she can do in the booth and how quick she is, and how her musicality is. She’s just so talented. I love the way our voices sound together. I love the way we blend. Just to hear her doing so many different harmonies, it’s like, “Wow, she’s really been listening! She’s really inspired!” This is something that she’s born to do.
I love what “High Heels” is about, and how empowering it is. I had a good time with her and I want to continue to do music with her. I think that she’s just growing to be a incredible young artist and I’m just here for it. I want to watch her grow and be here for her every step of the way.
She’s the same age that you were at the peak of your ascent, as both a singer and actress. I can’t imagine what your teen years were like, especially having a foot in both those worlds. Do you look back on that time with fondness, or does it feel like a traumatic thing to have gone through as a young woman?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I got a chance to experience things that I’d never dreamt of, and then everything that I ever dreamed of. But then also, I had to grow up in front of the public. I didn’t get a chance to make private mistakes and really discover my own voice without having to deal with everyone else’s voices and thoughts and opinions about the things that I was doing. Trauma definitely comes along with that, but I was able to overcome that and I’m able to look back on my past with a lot of compassion and no regrets.
I’m also able to protect my daughter. I’m able to give her advice and let her know that she has a lot of time, she can grow up a lot without having to be in front of the public eye. She can take her time with it, she can be known a little bit right now and then grow in privacy and then come out a little bit later. She doesn’t have to come out at 18. She doesn’t have to come out at 21. She can wait until she’s in her mid-twenties. She doesn’t have to follow the same path. I can just teach her different things that I didn’t know at that time. I’m thankful for the life that I’ve had and for the things I’ve been able to experience.
Even though you were dealing with a lot of personal issues following Two Eleven, it seemed like there was a lot of legacy-building happening thanks to a new class of R&B and pop stars who have cited you directly. Solange, Frank Ocean, H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar come to mind as young stars who have cited your music specifically as reasons why they do what they do.
You know what? Every time I’ve seen artists, like the artists that you’ve mentioned, pay homage, it’s a heart-dropping feeling. It’s a very special feeling. It feels like the work that I have put in, all of the time that I spent on trying my best to master my craft and trying the best to choose the right songs and come up with the right titles and the right harmonies and the right ad-libs, and everything that I’ve put into building a unique sound for myself. To get the praise that I’ve been able to get, it’s just a very special feeling and I’m super humbled by it.
It always feels good to be acknowledged in that way, and it feels like the work that I’ve done is recognized and it’s not in vain. That keeps me pushing forward in everything that I do. I really appreciate those artists for mentioning me and just being influenced by me. It’s beautiful.
Finally, a question that I’ve seen pop up a lot on-line: Do you have any insight on why your breakthrough film Cinderella is not yet on Disney+?
I absolutely don’t have any insight into that! I have no idea why isn’t it on Disney+. It should on there because it’s Whitney Houston alone. You know what I mean? All by itself, just because it’s Whitney Houston. So, I don’t know. But I mean, Double Platinum, the movie that I did with Diana Ross, just was released on Netflix. That’s hope that maybe Disney can come on up and scoop up Cinderella. That would be awesome, I would love that.