Since she admitted, "This game ain't what I'm used to," on 2004's Afrodisiac, Brandy has carried herself like an artist both accustomed to and embittered by her underdog status. But despite the strong sales she enjoyed with her first three albums, she's actually always seemed like a minor-league star, unequipped to compete with the dominant stylistic trends that fueled R&B's consistent pop-chart presence throughout the '90s. Lacking the range and power of a vocal athlete like Mariah Carey, the hip-hop confessionalism of Mary J. Blige, or the guru posturing of a neo-soul singer-songwriter, she proved difficult for the casual listener to distinguish from the mostly disposable teen acts that crowded the genre toward the end of the decade.
Now that R&B is experiencing a commercial low point, as well as a newfound hipster cachet with the rise of revisionists like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, each major new release in the genre seems intent on either bringing back the old flavor or paving a radical new path. Two Eleven, Brandy's first album in four years, has been touted as progressive R&B, but it doesn't exactly redefine the singer as a visionary. What's refreshing about this new work, though, is how it clears a place for her in the realm of forward-thinking urban music while also reaching back to clarify her distinctive position in the diva pantheon. Partly named for the date on which her friend and idol Whitney Houston died, Two Eleven is at its core a singer's album, and it's the clearest portrait yet of Brandy's instrument, which in the past has tended to get lost in a clutter of intricate vocal arrangements and razzle-dazzle productions.
Listeners who've been missing that exquisite dark alto should skip insipid club bangers like the Chris Brown-assisted "Put It Down" and the Lykke Li-sampling "Let Me Go," and instead concentrate on the surprisingly fresh midtempo ballads. "Wildest Dreams" is emblematic of Two Eleven's combination of new and old. Kicking off with a hard-knocking throwback beat, the opening seconds pit two familiar Brandys against each other—an ethereal flurry of stacked harmonies against a robotic delivery reminiscent of her style on 2002's futuristic-sounding Full Moon. It's the verses that bring the surprise: a raw, almost abrasive rasp in her tone, complemented by a needle-on-vinyl crackle looped in the background. Like little else in contemporary pop singing, Brandy's subtle manipulation of timbre and texture rewards close listening, and the song frames her performance so well it hardly matters how undercooked the songwriting ends up being.
Brandy's main claim to technical virtuosity has always been her long, cascading riffs—a skill many R&B die-hards revere her for, perhaps because it brings a hint of church authenticity to even the most impersonal soundscapes. The album offers her plenty of chances to flaunt her dexterity, but the standout slow jams reveal a contradictory admiration for the starkness and masculine brooding of Drake, and Frank Ocean, and Kanye West circa 808s & Heartbreak—a sound that's replaced vocal showboating with repetition and digression. The Danja/Rico Love-produced bonus track "Can You Hear Me Now?," for example, works up an extended musical foreplay around a single mind-numbing groove, with Brandy's repetitive androgynous moan withholding climax. Of all the female R&B singers of the '90s, Brandy seems like the most natural fit for this current direction of the genre, partly because of her unusual tone, its strange mix of warmth and cold, hard edges.
On the Ocean-penned "Scared of Beautiful," Brandy's left no room to ululate, leashing herself to the bottom of her range all the better to goad her mirror image into self-affirmation. Melodically the song is an Ocean throwaway, but the schizophrenic lyrics allow Brandy to test out her gift as a storyteller—something that didn't come naturally to her in the sometimes unconvincing performances of her youth. R&B has pursued sincerity through vocal extravagance throughout its varied history, but the paradox that keeps Two Eleven compelling is how much more we discover about Brandy's voice when she isn't showing all her cards, when she gives herself license to be an emotional and sonic mystery.