Hot on the heels of her 32nd birthday last week, we salute R&B singer-songwriter and actress Brandy by taking a look at her classic 1998 album, Never Say Never. Having released her debut album Brandy four years earlier at the age of 15, [interestingly featuring Rahsaan Patterson and Robin Thicke behind the scenes] Miss Norwood piqued many people’s interest. Brandy had gone on to become the muse of the hit TV series Moesha and had garnered the love of many who could identify with her character.

Brandy had matured in both life and her vocal ability and this is the premise of the creation of the album. She was paired up with the little known, soon to be powerhouse producer Rodney “DarkChild” Jerkins and his team of talented writers, including LaShawn Daniels.

With other names involved in the creation process being Marc Nelson, Dianne Warren, David Foster, Harvey Mason Jr and Dallas Austin, the album was set up with the muscle to make the album perform well. All that remained was for Brandy to bring her vocals into the mix. She did, and the results were phenomenal.

Let me just break things up here by telling you that not one talented R&B singer I know doesn’t count Brandy as an influence. People often cite the Full Moon album as being particularly inspirational to them, especially when you account for the vocal arrangements and Brandy’s yet further developed vocal ability. And although the Brandy album showed flashes of what she could do, Never Say Never is the moment when Brandy stepped into being her own artist and an influential singer for modern day R&B. When you listen to Never Say Never you begin to see where people like Chris Brown and Jazmine Sullivan got their vocal inspiration.

After the ‘Intro’, a necessary inclusion in any ’90s R&B, the album goes straight into ‘Angel In Disguise,’ a song that typifies that era of R&B to me: Talking in breathy tones over the intro, a drum pattern that is wild in it’s hi hat, syncopated in it’s kick drum but has ‘the bounce’ and orchestra hits built upon a chord progression that has Gospel undertones.

Brandy – “Angel In Disguise”:

The lyrics talk of deception and the hurt felt by Brandy when her hunch comes true. Although the vocal delivery in the most part is restrained, Brandy brings passion and longing with her heavily stylised and instantly recognisable ad-libs towards the end. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering why that male voice in the track sounds so familiar, it’s because it’s Joe.

Brandy – “Learn The Hard Way”:

‘Learn the Hard Way’ built upon a typical R&B hammer-on/off type guitar part with a solid backbeat held down by the snare is led by heavily layered vocals and speaks yet again of being done wrong. Brandy’s vocal flair and forward thinking becomes even more clear on this track, throwing in ad-libs that are, looking back, so synonymous with her and typical of her style. The track moves seamlessly into the ballad ‘Almost Doesn’t Count.’

Another classic, the vocal production afforded to Brandy on this track allows her vocal to shine through more so than on previous tracks and allows us as listeners to pick up on the finer nuances of her performance. Once again, at some points, the register she sings in makes her sound a little restrained, however her rasp adds such flavour to her performance, there’s no need for her to be ‘blowing’ throughout the track. She manages to push and pull the timing of her vocal, add subtle runs and vary the melody enough to keep the listener interested.

Lyrically, this track has more to say than previous songs talking of the shortcomings of Brandy’s subject with lines such as, “Can’t keep on loving you one foot outside the door /I hear a funny hesitation /Of a heart that’s never really sure /Can’t keep on tryin’ /If you’re looking for more.”

‘U Don’t Know Me (Like You Used To)’ acted more like an album filler to me, however did have good points, in particular the drum production was rather hard hitting. It possibly acted as the precursor to Jennifer Lopez’s ‘If You Had My Love,’ which is probably why I didn’t really like it too much.

The title track, ‘Never Say Never’ is not particularly noteworthy, apart from containing the phrase ‘PHD’ which translates as Playa Haters Disease, not a scientific term, but one that made many a writer’s notebook in the ’90s. ‘Tomorrow’ acts another song that I found not so memorable.

‘Truthfully’ is a R&B ballad that is SO unbelievably ’90s R&B that I think we should send it to aliens in order for them to understand what the era was all about and also put it in an audio museum. Harvey Mason Jr. and Marc Nelson team up on the writing side to put the R and B into Brandy. ‘Put That On Everything’ qualifies in the same category and is another mainstay on the album.

Brandy – “Put That On Everything”:

Produced by David Foster and written by pop writer supreme Diane Warren, ‘Have You Ever?’ produces that crossover ballad sound that appealed to a wider audience than perhaps just the average R&B could. The song performed particularly well, reaching number 1 in the Billboard 100 and achieving similarly success in other territories.

The track has the money notes and key changes required to succeed on a mainstream level and David Foster in particular worked with other female vocalists such as Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The addition of Dianne Warren showed us a different side of Brandy as an artist and her ability to cut it in the mainstream world, managing to fit in perfectly into the sound of the time.

‘One Voice,’ one of the other David Foster produced tracks on the album, is unfortunately not worthy of the same praise. Although it is a good song, unfortunately I found it on the whole quite cheesy. Although the sentiment is touching and inspirational and Hezekiah Walker’s choir do the do behind Brandy, this song comes across as being the wrong side of the fine line that is cheese. Brandy does smash the vocal though.

‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,’ the power ballad originally sung by Bryan Adams and featured on the soundtrack of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the bane of music charts across the world. Unfortunately, Brandy’s version does little to alleviate this. I blame David Foster for putting the idea forward to have this on the album, producing and including it on the album.

‘Top of The World’ featuring everyone’s favourite Reverend [after Al Green] Ma$e, was a club favourite and performed well internationally. It is built upon a strong bassline, is uptempo and captured the ultra popular ‘Bad Boy’ sound very well, retaining the Darkchild stamp via the fake guitar sound. Brandy and Ma$e gave the world they were sitting on top of a feel good, underground favourite that managed to capture the a wider audience.

If there’s one song that is likely to sum up this album and furthermore this period of R&B, it is ‘The Boy Is Mine.’ The infamous arpeggiated harp sequence, dialogue over the beginning, propelling drums and interspersed melodically strong string phrases provided the backdrop to this classic battle, that took it’s cue from Michael Jackson’s tête à tête with Paul McCartney on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ from the Thriller album.

The lyric is a paraphrased, updated version of the ’80s classic where Brandy and her ‘arch nemesis’, young R&B star Monica go line by line against each other vying for the affection of the subject and commiserating each other for the apparent confusion they seem to be experiencing. Towards the end of the song, the feeling intensifies, where both vocalists trade vocal ad-libs and it is still fiercely contested in R&B circles who won the battle, vocally at the very least.

The video itself painted the picture of the song particularly well and starred rising actor Mekhi Phifer as the bone of contention. The song had worldwide success, and although didn’t get the top spot everywhere, stayed at the top of the US charts for 13 weeks and gave Brandy and Monica huge exposure in Europe, credited as being their biggest performing songs on the continent.

In closing, Brandy showed us a huge progression on an album filled with classics on Never Say Never. She had gone from being a young artist, to mature, more restrained yet more refined vocalist. She began making an impression on future artists within the genre of R&B and captured the moment in time of the genre with particular ease and to great effect. I may be looking at this album nostalgically, but I don’t really care. The album, although not 100% solid, is worthy of the title of a classic.

Purchase: Brandy – Never Say Never