The most exciting recent musical development in R&B has less to do with its beat than what's floating above it. The synth-led humidity the genre has absorbed via the likes of Frank Ocean, Drake (and his producer, Noah "40" Shebib), the Weeknd, and Miguel is shaping the commercial genre before our ears in a way that hasn't happened since Timbaland revolutionized it by making it skitter during the last half of the ‘90s. Mood music actually sounds moody again.
Those examples point to the fact that this atmospheric permutation of the genre has mostly been a man's game, with female singers either avoiding it entirely or dipping into it occasionally (see the highlight of Beyoncé's 4, the Frank Ocean-penned "I Miss You"). It's not exactly clear why, especially since the aforementioned male artists run the risk of being mocked for softness amid all their ambiance. It's made the genre step its game up, though. The depth of sound has been accompanied by deeper personae: conflicted headcases who marry hedonism and misery (see the entirety of Drake's Take Care), sensitive dudes who turn Lothario when the guitars come out (see Miguel's "Pussy Is Mine"), flawed guys whose imperfect falsettos are bolder than the most rumbling bass (see Frank Ocean).
No matter if it is circumstantial or some subliminal commentary on gender (perhaps the supposition that women are expressive and deep enough without thick keyboards dictating their tone?), Brandy's sixth studio album, Two Eleven, is at least conversant with this genre development. Sometimes layers of Brandy's vocals are the atmospheric foundations (the stunning "Paint This House"), sometimes the sound is so thick, it itself wheezes (the Danja/Rico Love bonus track "Can You Hear Me Now?"). These songs are prone to breaking down to just piano and Brandy's voice, now aged to an occasionally raspy perfection compared to the high-gloss of her early vocal work done in her teens. But even during the sparsest times or when a gritty break beat provides most of the support for Brandy's now grittier voice (as on the lovely second single, "Wildest Dreams"), you can feel the air.
Two Eleven, named after the date of Brandy's birth and Whitney Houston's death, meets a movement halfway. Even at its most atmospheric the album is clearer and more tangible than the clouds on top of clouds that Frank Ocean and especially Drake float through. There's a firming-up happening here, a brushing away of some dust, a fine-tuning to make all the ambiance more intelligible. The separate lines responsible for the overall sound design are almost always discernible, even when the synths threaten to throw you askew by sounding like a bunch of balloons flying around a room, never losing enough air to deflate entirely ("Let Me Go") or when, during the last half of the album, the songs start pulsing like the chilly offspring of Art of Noise's "Moments in Love." Two Eleven lacks the loftiness that sometimes comes with this deeper sound.
It's less bogged down, sometimes lighter, but as deliberately paced as the work of any of the above referenced musicians. R&B is in the advent of midtempo, and Brandy establishes that she is the master of it. She said that she wanted to shock people with the album's tremendous first single (withstanding even its Chris Brown cameo), the horny, horn-filled "Put It Down," and shock is exactly what at least half of these songs do, routinely teasing with an intro tempo that then turns out to be double time or switching from dark to bright depending on whether it's in verse or chorus. Those uproarious balloon synths in the hook of "Let Me Go" make way for serious sub bass and piano of the verse. Through a hi-hat haze, "Without You" turns into old school, boom-bap hip-hop soul. The orchestral lullaby of bonus track "What You Need" leaves the bedroom during the chorus to find Brandy purring over little more than raucously vibrating bass, "I'll be in the kitchen in your favorite position." So many of these songs go out there and back, all the while maintaining a trotting pace.
Brandy had very little hand in writing the album, and about 20 producers weighed in. Two Eleven maintains its uniformity via motifs like frequent pianos, stuttering vocals and multiple brass-based bass lines. The album feels less like a statement than an assertion. It's an assertion that someone who was counted out (2008's Human was a massive flop), someone who has for years existed in the awkward phase between child star and grown artist, someone whose personal tragedies, dubious involvement in them and reality TV misguidance have overshadowed what made her famous in the first place, can once again find her footing and be relevant. Two Eleven doesn't sound any younger or older than Brandy is. It's not obtusely hip or desperately serious. It just is, it's just now and it's just right.