News for April 2012

Sade Step Back Into Spotlight With ‘Bring Me Home’ – (Apr. 2012)

After nearly three decades of making music, Sade Adu still has a hard time letting fans in, preferring to limit her press ops and take decade-long stretches between new album releases. But the British-Nigerian singer and her band are inching back towards the spotlight with the May 22nd DVD/CD and Blu-ray release of Bring Me Home – Live 2011, which chronicles their mega-successful Sade Live tour. The 54-date trek touched down in Europe, America, Australia and Asia and celebrated Sade’s platinum-certified 2010 LP, Soldier of Love.

Despite the tour’s success, Sade’s frontwoman approached the idea of a live LP and behind-the-scenes documentary with typical temerity. “Initially I didn’t want to do it, because I had this feeling that it was a great moment and I was afraid we couldn’t convey the atmosphere and the feeling of the whole tour,” says Adu. “There’s always that fear and trepidation. But you have no choice but to go on because you’re in it.”

Directed by Sophie Muller, who also designed and produced the tour, the 20-minute documentary compiles rare footage of Sade behind-the-scenes that chips at the notoriously elusive singer’s shellacked persona. In one scene, she harmonizes “Amazing Grace” with her backup singers; in another, she gazes pensively into a mirror during a rare moment of open reflection.

For Adu, returning to the stage after a 10-year hiatus was admittedly daunting. She rebuffs her celebrity but says that collaborating with Muller gave her the confidence to perform like a “gladiator.” Explains the 53-year-old singer, “I’m tough. I’m a Nigerian. I’m into the moment and I put my entire self into that. I suppose I am reluctant to share my life. My life is in the songs, and I’ve already done that. I don’t think our fans have those expectations from me.”

Muller, whose work with Sade stretches back to the Eighties, encouraged the band to go grand onstage without compromising the intimacy of their songs. They conceptualized the show as a negotiation of extremes: tour opener “Soldier of Love,” for example, is set against a towering slow-exposure backdrop of passing clouds, while Sade duets with a naked electric guitar-saxophone combo during her perormance of “Promise,” perched on the lip of the stage.

“Each song has its own personality and we wanted the whole visual panorama to completely change, dependent upon the character and atmosphere of the song at the moment,” explains Adu, adding that she hopes to take her live show to Africa “if” she tours again. “That’s what I felt was something great about this show. You’re in this tiny miniscule theater, and then suddenly, you’re in a stadium. It was an overriding sensation.”

Already, there’s a two-year stretch between Soldier of Love’s release and that of Bring Me Home. But Adu says she no immediate plans to record new music or return to the stage, although extracurricular activities could keep her star from dimming. “I’ve got some plans for some projects that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I think I’ve got a lot of energy,” says Adu with some restraint. “As far as music goes, that’s something that I’m not very pragmatic about. I let it sort of appear and grab me. It could be two years or 10 years. I don’t make plans like that. It somehow happens.”

Posted: April 30th, 2012
Categories: Online
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“T.I., 2 Chainz & More Struggle to Keep Mixtape Music off iTunes, Amazon” – Billboard Magazine (Apr. 2012)

A version of T.I.’s single “I’m Flexin’” has sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song, which features Def Jam artist Rick Ross, has been available in the iTunes store since Jan. 24 as part of the DJ Cortez and DJ Ransom Dollars mixtape “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3.” But something isn’t right: T.I.’s Grand Hustle camp has never licensed this version of the song for retail, and hasn’t seen any revenue from these sales.

It’s an issue that’s plagued rappers who often use mixtapes as promotional items, rather than product for sale. Grand Hustle CEO Jason Geter speculates that DJs partner with distribution companies to mutually profit from major mixtape releases. “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3,” distributed by Green Light Records through SongCast, is also up on Amazon and Rhapsody, where the “Flexin’” remix is available for purchase.

“No one should be seeing money off of a T.I. record if we’re not seeing money off of that, period,” says Geter, who co-founded Grand Hustle with T.I. “With Amazon or iTunes or any major distributor, they should be held accountable.”

Both iTunes and Amazon have copyright infringement policies that allow anyone to lodge complaints. (ITunes vows to “terminate the accounts of users who violate others’ intellectual property rights” in its copyright policy.) Rights-holders must specifically request that a song be taken down, yet despite this safeguard, tracks often reappear in the digital stores shortly after their removal, requiring artists and management to constantly track the use of their music. Neither iTunes nor Amazon responded to repeated requests for comment.

T.I. isn’t the only rapper who has found his songs for sale without consent. New Def Jam Recordings signee 2 Chainz has struggled to keep his mixtape material off digital sites. In November 2011, he released his breakout mixtape, “T.R.U. REALigion,” hosted by DJ Drama. Then unsigned, the Atlanta native put up the non-DJ version for sale on digital platforms to profit from the project, which comprised original content. After signing his deal, 2 Chainz’ team removed the tape from iTunes as he transferred the masters to the label, but tracks continue to appear on the digital retailer on other compilations. “T.R.U. REALigion” wasn’t taken down from Amazon, where it’s still available for purchase.

One of the tape’s standout tracks, “Riot,” can be found on iTunes in remixed form on the compilation “We Turnt Up Vol. 6,” released through AMB Digital, a label affiliated with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance/the Orchard. According to SoundScan, the anthem featuring Warner Bros. artist Gucci Mane has sold 1,200 copies since first appearing in the store on Feb. 1. “We Turnt Up” credits the song to “2Chainz & Gucci” — a slight name variation that doesn’t register through any basic search on retail sites. The tactic frequently helps deter artists and management from finding unauthorized tracks. On “We Turnt Up,” other names are also modified, such as Rick Ross (“Rozay”), Alley Boy (“Allley Boy”) and Jim Jones (“Jimmy Jones”).

For 2 Chainz’ manager Teknikz, battling mixtape profiteers in the digital realm has become routine. “We constantly have to go after them,” says Teknikz, who also manages Travis Porter and Jose Guapo under Street Execs Management. Teknikz physically sifts through online retail sites and makes a list of who illegally distributes their content. “It comes down to doing research and seeing who’s putting your stuff up,” he says, adding that repeat offenders are a constant hassle. “I was just doing this a month ago, and now I have to go back and do it again.”

Mixtapes have appeared at retail for years, legally or not. Throughout the ’90s, they were often labeled as “for promotional use only” while bootlegged and sold out of car trunks and on street corners. DJs and rappers often earned profits from those sales. With the rise of the Internet, mixtapes were sold on websites and some even appeared at physical retail as label-sanctioned releases.

Some labels have stepped in to regulate the unauthorized sales. Bad Boy Worldwide VP of marketing Jason Wiley says the imprint monitors mixtapes from artists like Machine Gun Kelly and French Montana since it’s beneficial in the long term to promote free material. “It’s a constant battle,” Wiley says. “We’re always tracking our sales, tracking our numbers, seeing how it relates to fans and tour dates. So, in doing all of that, we’re looking at this person buying and selling a song illegally.”

It’s still unclear if distributors are aware that they’re perpetuating copyright infringement. The Orchard, for one, declined to comment. ­Either way, Grand Hustle’s Geter sees the major labels as the answer.

“When you say [a T.I.] record sold 1,700 copies, on a big scale, that’s nothing,” he says. “But [those sales] add up at the end of the day. It’s going to be a problem if major labels don’t address it and make these companies accountable for their actions.”

Posted: April 30th, 2012
Categories: Features
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“B.o.B Talks ‘Strange Clouds’ Album & Sponsorship Deals” – Billboard Magazine (Apr. 2012)

For his sophomore album, “Strange Clouds,” B.o.B hopes to take his corporate connections sky high.

Following the success of his 2010 gold-certified debut, “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” the Decatur, Ga., native looked for ways to boost his image, striking deals with Target and Coca-Cola in addition to a pre-existing Adidas sponsorship and an appearance in an Electronic Arts Sports videogame. The singer/songwriter, who cracked both pop and R&B markets with the singles “Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” (peaking at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100), wanted to expand his business portfolio with his second album and use those ties to introduce his music to a wider audience.

“I definitely see the benefit behind building a brand for whatever venture you catapult yourself into,” B.o.B says. “But for me, the driving force has always been the music-it’s just a way to get my music heard by more people and [potentially] more fans.”

With “Strange Clouds,” arriving May 1 on Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic, the 23-year-old signed a deal with Target to promote the album through TV and online campaigns. His conversations with the big-box chain date back to “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” but the partnership was solidified after he played them several cuts from his new project. TV spots and online ads begin April 29, and culminate with a New York event on the album’s release date. Target will also sell an exclusive version of the set with five bonus tracks.

Target doesn’t typically work with rap artists, but the company has previously signed exclusive deals with several rock and pop acts including Pearl Jam, Lady Gaga and Ricky Martin. Marsha St. Hubert, director of marketing at Atlantic Records and product manager for “Strange Clouds,” says, “B.o.B isn’t just a hip-hop artist, although he raps and makes hip-hop music. He also has the ability to do more. He sings, he plays instruments, he has a broader and more universal appeal. That’s probably what makes the partnership with Target so unique.”

That diversity is evident on “Strange Clouds,” which teeters between the grittier rap sound of his mixtape fare and the pop sheen of “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” which has sold 597,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (“Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” have sold a combined 7.5 million copies.) The album is led by the platinum title track (1.2 million copies), featuring Lil Wayne, touting a buzzy, Southern-influenced beat and such radio-unfriendly lyrics as, “Stay on the greenest greens, call us vegetarians.”

While B.o.B plays to hip-hop audiences with guest appearances from Grand Hustle label head T.I., as well as Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and Trey Songz, he balances the urban angle with pop and even country artists making contributions. Taylor Swift duets with him on “Both of Us,” while OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder croons on “Never Let You Go” and R&B songstress Lauriana Mae contributes to “Chandelier.” As with his debut, production comes courtesy of pop masterminds Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Benny Blanco and Alex Da Kid. The album’s pop-geared single, “So Good,” is also approaching platinum (869,000 copies).

B.o.B dates his musical flexibility back to his adolescent years. “I had always had that approach and could talk to everybody-from the jocks and cheerleaders to outcasts, nerds and gangsters,” he says, describing himself as “a drifter.” Later on, he says, “I developed a wide range, and it grew with my music career. I feel like I can speak different languages when it comes to music.”

The artist plans to perform on the European festival circuit beginning in July, returning to the United States in August for a headlining tour he claims will continue for two years. He’s already at work on an upcoming mixtape and has been recording songs with T.I. for a collaborative album titled The Man and the Martian, which will be released after “Strange Clouds” and T.I.’s forthcoming “Trouble Man.”

“The last album was about the songs. The songs were bigger than Bob,” B.o.B’s manager Brian “B-Rich” Richardson says. “This album is about B.o.B the brand, and letting people know who he is.” Richardson notes that partnerships were in place for the first album with Nintendo, Adidas and EA Sports. “Each album cycle, you have to get bigger,” he says.

Beyond his touring and recording, however, becoming an entrepreneur is a top priority. ” Will Smith, T.I., André 3000 and Cee Lo Green are artists who have longevity in entertainment and the business world and even beyond music,” B.o.B says. “No matter what road you’re on, it’s going to keep moving regardless of what happens, good or bad, high or low. You’ve got to keep moving on that road and make the best situation out of whatever is thrown your way.”

Posted: April 30th, 2012
Categories: Features
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“Usher Premieres New Album Off-Broadway” – (Apr. 2012)

Usher doesn’t want you to just listen to his seventh album Looking for Myself – he’d rather you feel it. To debut his Euro-splashed LP, coming out June 12th, the R&B sexophile integrated himself into two performances of Off-Broadway’s “Fuerza Bruta,” a senses-stimulating live experience combining vigorous slam dancing, surgical lighting cues and participation from a clumped standing-only audience.

A foggy haze permeated the cavernous performance space at New York City’s Daryl Roth Theater, where the 33-year-old theatrically sequenced the entirety of the project to strobing lights and choreographed moves. A booming voice introduced the night as “a journey for each of the senses,” and warned the audience, “what happens stays here. Consider yourself lucky.” Those in attendance for the first of two pre-public performances took note, heeding commands to crouch low to the ground and pump fists in the air.

Emerging from the dark, a fauxhawk-coiffed Ursh, clad in a snow-white suit accented by a black tie, trotted across a conveyor belt in beat to the Diplo-produced “Climax.” As the tempo galloped and his pace quickened, he clutched his stomach as a gunshot fired and blood spread across his torso, leaving the evening’s protagonist injured but able to mingle with fellow players as the crunchy title track, produced by Empire of the Sun, boomed through the system.

That sense of wounded ache counteracted his desire to command the crowd, a balance struck tightly on Looking for Myself. The LP piggybacks on the ephemeral club appeal of his recent hits, including “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” featuring Pitbull and David Guetta’s “Without You,” and weighs it against vulnerable demi-ballads à la “Papers,” pointing the pen inward while reflecting on the concept of fidelity.

At his most frivolous, Usher dominated the room. As the audience shuffled to accommodate the constantly shifting set pieces, he orchestrated flash dance parties, bringing attendees onto a pint-sized stage to boogie to the sounds of the album’s second single “Scream,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback. Even when he splayed across a makeshift couch during the Jim Jonsin-helmed “Let Me See” featuring Rick Ross, patrons bounced to the PG-13 lyrics (“She said she want to take her shirt off, be my guest,” he sings) while lights flashed and acrobats raced along a silver curtain 30 feet above the ground.

But it was when the pace slowed that Usher’s trademark sensitivity shined. The album reached emotional fever pitch during a Rico Love-penned “Dive,” where actors slid across a taut see-through tarp covered in pools of water, sustained above the audience’s head. “I don’t mind playing in the rain,” Usher naughtily coos over an unresolving melody. Later, against a cloudy and mechanical beat on an unnamed track, he sings a different tune: “I admit that I’ve been careless,” he confesses.

It’s those pocket moments of introspection that humanize the robotics of Looking for Myself. With two public performances at “Fuerza Bruta,” both taking place tonight (April 28), the veteran entertainer reasserts himself as a master of rapturous dance fodder, capable of turning a room into a thumping rave with ease. But the conflicted odes of self-reflection show the hero isn’t as valiant as the beat would have you believe – an uncertainty that keeps him grounded, even when the volume is cranked up high.

Posted: April 28th, 2012
Categories: Online
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Death Grips – Billboard Magazine (Apr. 2012)

When noise-rap trio Death Grips informally met with Epic Records executives Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Angelica Cob-Baehler in October 2011, it didn’t expect to leave the meeting signed to the label.

The Sacramento, Calif., band, which consists of rapper Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride), producer Andy Morin (aka Flatlander) and drummer Zach Hill, had amassed a loyal following through viral videos and riotous performances since forming in December 2010. Its first recording, “Full Moon (Death Classic)” — a stilted breed of electro, metal and hardcore rap-served as a raucous appetizer for a free mixtape titled “Exmilitary,” which was greeted with critical fanfare upon its debut in April 2011.

But it was the group’s unsettling, low-budget video for the song “Guillotine” that caught Cob-Baehler’s attention. In October, after a courtship by several labels following the mixtape release, Death Grips ventured to Sony’s Los Angeles headquarters. There, MC Ride tagged the company’s bathroom with graffiti before the meeting, demonstrating a sense of rebellion that sold executives on the threesome. What’s unusual is how the group responded to Epic’s pitch, especially given its anti-establishment attitude.

The deal was ironed out in less than five hours. The label convinced the group that it was on the same page, promising not to compromise its artistic integrity or assume its publishing rights.

“We were kind of taking things with a grain of salt,” Hill says. “That’s generally what we do with anybody on the outside that’s coming into the inside. But it became very apparent that these people really understood what we were doing and to not mess with it. They generally believed in this as something that was different.”

“It’s a unique signing to Epic, in the sense that the music isn’t easily digestible at first,” says Cob-Baehler, the executive VP of marketing at Epic who is heading the A&R effort for Death Grips’ upcoming debut, “The Money Store.” “But if there ever was a time to get fearless about signing, it’s now. If you want to break the mold in any way, you have to go into unchartered territory. The fact that people keep saying this is such a unique or unexpected signing confirms that it was a great one.”

Immediate plans include releasing “The Money Store” through independent retail on Record Store Day (April 21) and its follow-up “No Love” in the fall. Certain that fans will flock to Death Grips through word-of-mouth (“This band cannot be explained-it has to be experienced,” Cob-Baehler says), the group has partnered with BitTorrent to release a music video for “I’ve Seen Footage” through the controversial downloading service. In addition to performing at this year’s Coachella festival, the band is already fielding offers to play gigs in 2013.

So far, the pairing of the Sony label and the aggressive hip-hop band has been mutually rewarding. “We saw eye to eye in a sense of saying, ‘Let’s just do this. Let’s not get caught up in record sales or money-let’s just do this because we love music and we want to shake things up,’” Cob-Baehler says.

As for the group’s perspective, Hill says, “We’re in control. It’s obvious that people have picked up on it as far as who’s running Death Grips, and that’s how it’s always going to be. [Epic] is here to help us with what we say we need help with. And that’s how it’s going down.”

Posted: April 25th, 2012
Categories: Short Clips
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One Direction & The Wanted Cover Story – Billboard Magazine (Mar. 2012)

When Melissa Lonner, senior entertainment producer for NBC’s “Today,” booked Brit pop quintet One Direction in January, she scheduled the group for a routine in-studio performance. But once news broke that the boyish fivesome would be at 30 Rock, a deluge of fan emails flooded the show’s inbox, forcing NBC to relocate the appearance to Rockefeller Plaza. That was when the New York Police Department got involved. Spurred by reports of swelling public appearances by the band in other markets like Toronto and Boston — the latter of which attracting some 5,000 screaming fans to Natick Mall — the NYPD contacted NBC security to ensure measures would be taken to maintain order.

When the group often referred to as 1D finally did appear in midtown Manhattan on March 12 — the day before its chart-topping debut, “Up All Night”, arrived on Columbia Records — an estimated 15,000 fans descended on the plaza, spilling onto the surrounding streets. It was an unprecedented turnout for an act that had yet to release an album stateside. (“Up All Night” debuted at No. 2 in the United Kingdom when it was released there on Nov. 21.) But even beyond that: The crowd for 1D — which consists of Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles (ages 18-20) — ranked among the biggest “Today” has seen. Only Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Chris Brown have drawn that kind of turnout to date.

“Keep in mind, Justin and Chris have had hits in the U.S. and are known in the U.S.,” Lonner says. “One Direction is relatively unknown with no hits yet. They basically exploded, and all the adults are saying, ‘Who are these people, and how do they know about it?’”

In April, another all-male English import, the Wanted — a quintet with a style a bit more built for the post-teenage demographic than 1D — is booked for an in-studio performance at “Today.” The appearance comes in anticipation of the April 24 release of the Wanted’s self-titled debut, a seven-track EP arriving on Island Def Jam and complemented by a 10-song deluxe edition. The group’s full-length debut, Battleground (Island Def Jam), which appeared in the United Kingdom in November and is slated to arrive stateside this fall, is certified gold there and has already spawned two No. 1s on the U.K. chart. According to Lonner, if the demand for the Wanted is anything near that of 1D, “Today” will once again move the show outside. With extra security in place, of course.

Not since the reigning days of Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees have boy bands crashed pop culture with such fervor. In the past few years, solo starlets including Bieber, Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna have presided over the pop charts. But as summer approaches, 1D and the Wanted are spearheading what could very well be the next boy band boom. The story is a familiar one: Backed by big-name managers, fresh-faced groups assemble, win over potential fans through grass-roots marketing, attack the charts with slick pop fare and sell out tours in seconds.

Without so much as releasing an album in North America, 1D and the Wanted have already accomplished feats that took past boy bands years to achieve. Ahead of “Up All Night”‘s U.S. release, 1D’s breakout single “What Makes You Beautiful” became the highest-charting debut for a U.K. artist on the Billboard Hot 100 since Jimmy Ray’s 1998 hit “Are You Jimmy Ray?” when it bowed at No. 28 on Feb. 22. (“Are You Jimmy Ray?” entered the chart at No. 26.)

In the United Kingdom, “Beautiful” is mammoth: The summery track entered the singles chart at No. 1, selling 540,000 copies (according to the Official Charts Co.) and winning Best British Single at the BRIT Awards in February. In the United States, 1D has shut down malls with in-store signings and appearances from coast to coast. Fans even chased the group’s car through Manhattan following a performance at Radio City Music Hall on March 9, where it appeared as the opening act for fellow boy band Big Time Rush on the sold-out Better With U tour. 1D and the Wanted have contemporaries — Big Time Rush, JLS, Mindless Behavior and others-but while all have found success at retail and on the road, that success pales in comparison to the explosive rise of the two British acts.

This week, “Up All Night” tops the Billboard 200 with 176,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, unseating Bruce Springsteen and holding off Adele to make 1D the first British band — let alone British boy band — to enter the top spot with its debut album, something not even the Beatles could accomplish. (The Fab Four’s 1964 Vee-Jay Records debut, Introducing . . . The Beatles, reached No. 2.)

Despite still being a month out from its domestic debut, the Wanted has also soared in the States. Last August, Island Def Jam went to radio with “Glad You Came,” from the group’s U.K. sophomore album, Battleground.

Initially a slow build, “Glad You Came” took flight after the song was featured on the Feb. 21 episode of “Glee,” breaking the record for highest-charting single by a British band since Take That’s 1995 hit “Back for Good.” The Take That track reached No. 7 on the Hot 100. “Glad You Came” sits at No. 3. In January, the group made its U.S. debut on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” accompanied by a sold-out stateside trek that ran from January through February. When the Wanted returns in April, the group will have already lodged two No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom.

Simon Cowell, who signed 1D to his Syco Records imprint after the group’s appearance on the U.K. version of “The X Factor” in 2010, is no stranger to boy bands. In 1999, Cowell, working with 1D manager Richard Griffiths, helped male pop group Westlife sell more than 40 million albums worldwide, according to Griffith’s company Modest! Management. The demand for all-male pop groups may appear to be sporadic, but according to Cowell, it always comes in algorithmic waves.

“It’s a track-oriented chart at the moment,” Cowell says. “When we used to put records out years ago, two singles was the norm, three singles was a lot. And you have these solo artists now who could be, with collaborations, putting out seven or eight singles a year.”

Cowell credits Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun — who also manages the Wanted — as the drivers for putting young adult stars back on the map. “I’ve done this long enough that everything in music and entertainment in cyclical,” Cowell says. “[Even if] you go back to the Motown days, every time, it always comes back to 12 o’clock. It felt like that time again.”

A full version of this article can be found in this week’s Billboard, which arrives in two Tiger Beat-tastic versions (1D and The Wanted).

Posted: April 9th, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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Brandy Cover Story – YRB Magazine (Mar/Apr 2012)

Brandy is definitely in her zone. Following the release of her underrated, under-promoted 2008 album, Human, the former teen star retreated from the spotlight – a place she’s been centered since her first meeting with Atlantic Records at 15 years old. After several years of personal strife, including sagging sales of Human and severing ties with her recording label, Epic Records, the 33-year-old talent is ready to shed her skin and start anew.

“I think a lot of the struggles I’ve had are what I needed to go through to get to another place,” she says. “Everything is pretty sudden. One day I just woke up and I changed my mind about everything. I felt like I wasn’t fulfilled. I was acting simultaneously with singing as a kid, and I just felt like I have this talent, why am I not using it? Why am I not trying everything and doing everything I can do?” Snapped back to reality after a near four-year hiatus from her solo career, Brandy is back to basics with the upcoming release of her sixth album, Two Eleven, releasing in June. The LP, which features production and writing from Sean Garrett, Bangladesh, Rico Love, Frank Ocean, Drake and Noah “40” Shebib, comes on the heels of reality show stardom with her family (VH1’s Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business) and hand wave appearances at red carpets. Her public standing shrunk; her star dimmed.

But with Two Eleven, a reference to her birthday (February 11th) and the day her mentor Whitney Houston passed away, Brandy is signifying a reinvention of sorts: she’s signed with a new label, RCA Records, shifted out of her comfort zone and is embracing reality. It’s a near confrontational way to reclaim her artistry. “It’s taken a minute for me to really figure out the type of artist that I am, the type of music that I need to sing to reconnect with my audience. I just know with this album, I wanted it to be as honest and as real as possible,” she says. “Sometimes, you can get caught up in wanting to make hits and wanting to get on the radio and performing on everything that’s out there. I just wanted to stay true to who I was. That’s why it’s taken me so long to figure out the right home for me to put my music out there with. Other than that, I wanted my album to represent honesty and clarity and struggle and pain, as well as love, with a different sound and a different edge. That’s what this album is.”

Her first steps back into the pop culture arena came with a handholding counterpart. Fourteen years after their chart-rocking, she-for-all “The Boy is Mine,” Brandy and Monica reunited to record the Rico Love-penned “It All Belongs to Me,” the first single from both Two Eleven and Monica’s upcoming album New Life, due in April. On the sassy back-and-forth, the two unite instead of fight, staking materialistic territory in the wake of a breakup (“That MacBook, that shit belongs to me / So log off your Facebook,” they sass on the chorus). For Brandy, the intention was to release a solo single, but opportunity was too sweet to dismiss.

“I was so focused on my project and what I needed to do to get my music back out there, but when an idea like this comes along, this is more than just a song; it’s an event. It’s the reunion of two artists that made history together. It’s bigger than the song itself,” she says. “Of course I wanted to come out first on my own so I can stand on my own two feet, but who knew that this Monica thing would come along? I couldn’t say no to that. That would be stupid.”

The duet was more a matter of circumstance than opportunism. When Brandy and Monica paired in 1998, it was during their tempestuous teens, right when their careers were hitting full stride. The song became the best-selling track of that year, and won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. But industry politics turned them on one another. Only once did they grace the same stage to perform the back-and-forth cut: at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It took years of maturity to look past their petty squabble, which was admittedly without a basis, for the girls to woman up. After Brandy left Epic Records in 2009 and resigned with RCA Records in August 2011, she found herself at the same label home as her former foe. The imprint asked her if she would consider doing a collaborative cut with Monica, and after reconnecting with the Atlanta songstress, the wheels started spinning.

“The first time, we didn’t know each other. We just went to the studio and recorded the song. There was no chemistry there, really, because we didn’t really have any time to sing with each other,” says Brandy, who has since filmed a video for the song with Monica and performed the track live several times. The two are in talks to do a summer tour together, though nothing is set in stone. “We would be dumb if we didn’t do a tour. Something has to happen in order for that not to happen, something where you’d have to be like, ‘Oh, they called me to be in Avatar 3. Sorry Monica, I gotta do that movie!’ That would be the only thing that would stop me.”

Important to Brandy was keeping Monica close in the weeks following Whitney Houston’s death. Brandy had maintained a close relationship with the late singer throughout the years, and conversed with Whitney and Monica during Grammy weekend in February 2012. They had just spoken before Whitney retreated to her room, where she soon passed. Management insisted that no questions be asked about the loss of her mentor, but Brandy was quick to reference her, explaining that she was important enough to inspire Two Eleven’s title. “Some of the titles I was working with were Rebirth, Reincarnation, Reinvention, Resurrection… I just felt like Two Eleven describes all of that. It’s the day I was born, and each year, I evolve and change with time,” she says. “It also has a whole new meaning to it because I gained my angel. My icon is my angel now. It’s all tied in there and I just think it best represents who I am and the responsibilities I have moving on.”

Shying away from the smooth piano-infused tones of Human, Brandy roughs up her sound on Two Eleven, maintaining the powerful productions of previous records but mashing in genres outside of her comfort zone. “It’s definitely R&B, but it has the crossover appeal. It’s grittier, it’s edgier, it’s just different type of R&B. It’s not your regular smooth, soft with the beat type music,” she describes. “It’s just taking risks and hearing how I sound over different types of music, and I wanted an album that different people can listen to. Not just R&B, but pop and hip-hop. I wanted everyone to have something that they can listen to on this album.”

Part of her evolution comes in the form of the team involved on Two Eleven. Normally, Brandy aligns with a particular producer such as Timbaland or Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins to helm the bulk of an LP, and uses additional beatsmiths to color the gaps. But for Two Eleven, she’s piecing together a versatile offering of “gritty” R&B with pop and hip-hop overtones, working with a spread of musicians to expand her sound.

Notable contributions come from Odd Future’s resident crooner Frank Ocean, who previously penned “1st & Love” off of Human under his government name Christopher Breaux. For “Scared of Beautiful,” Ocean lends his writing chops for a deeper cut about a woman coming to terms with her beauty. “His music speaks volumes, and I was able to experience that before everyone else knew,” she says. “I always knew he was really special and I just wanted to see how we could vibe, what we could come up with together in the studio this time around. He’s just a genius. I think his songs have so much substance and so much depth, and you need that on an album as well.”

While self-imposed, the hiatus from her solo career came after departing from Epic Records, on which she only released Human. Brandy took the opportunity to breathe – she’d been active in music for more than a decade – and make her home at a label that would back her recordings and creativity – no questions asked. It’s at RCA where she found her footing – “They would do everything in their power to get my music out there” – and got her musical career back on track. But her creative reemergence also inspired her return to acting. As far back as her early teens, Brandy was a screen diva, holding court on television as the star of Moesha and appearing in films such as 1998’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and 2001’s Osmosis Jones. It took a cameo on CW’s 90210 to get her back into character, followed by recurring roles on Drop Dead Diva and The Game. She doesn’t care for reality television anymore and is entertaining the idea of developing and starring in a scripted series a la Moesha. “That’s where I’m from. I was raised on television. I need to continue to keep that up,” she explains. “It’s just like it was meant to be, for me to get back into it and with developing my own show now, I want a show that represents everything that I am and more, and just take risks and challenge myself to be somebody different than who I am, as well. I’m ready though.”

Television paved the way for her foray back into Hollywood. In July, Brandy will star alongside Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Williams and Lance Gross in the Tyler Perry film The Marriage Counselor, where she plays a woman named Melinda. Though she wouldn’t go into specifics about her character, she describes Melinda as “running from a past that’s so hard for her to face.” It’s a familiar circumstance for Brandy, who had spent the last few years coming to terms with her future while growing from previous hardships.

“It may not be the same exact situation or the same circumstance, but no matter what, pain feels the same in any situation,” she says. “I was definitely having to pull from the most painful experiences that I had to connect with Melinda, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re excited and happy to be doing a movie and working with Tyler Perry.”

With her singing and acting careers in full swing, Brandy looks back on her resurgence over the last year as a blessing. Stating that “positive thinking and including God in everything I do” is the key to success, she’s finally ready to take on new challenges, looking at former mistakes as stepping stones to putting her professional life back on track. “I’m just excited to entertain and discover more and more about myself, and through these great experiences like doing an album, doing different roles, all of this stuff, it’s just reminding me of why I’m here and why I’m on this planet. I just want to continue to do everything that I’m supposed to do,” she says. “It’s all a gift. I’m just so thankful. I just want to be able to do whatever it is that I’m meant to do. I’m just excited to discover more and more about me, because I forgot. I really forgot. I’m reminded more and more every time I experience things like I’ve been experiencing them over the last year.”

Posted: April 1st, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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