By Tiffany E. Browne
Social media was abuzz one particular evening in February. Brandy Norwood had hit the stage at LA Live’s Club Nokia. Instagram photos of the five-foot-seven beauty went viral. Concert goers took to Twitter with excitement as she performed their favorite hits. The hits kept coming with classics such as the “Sittin’ Up in My Room,” penned by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, receiving one of the biggest reactions.
“I loved doing that show, says Norwood. “That was one of my most connected shows. You know, when I’m performing I get to be free as much as possible and I was able to do that,” beams a thirty-four year old Norwood. “There was a lot of interaction. That’s key; the better the audience, the better the performance. ”
One can say that a lot of the exuberant vibes felt that evening was the releasing of bottled up energy from Brandy fans. They have been missing the soulful and raspy alto voice that can translate their heartache into a triumphant melody. True, she can been seen in character breaking down someone’s distain for Black women while slowly learning to and falling in love with them on BET’s The Game, but it had been five years since her fans got their dose of Brandy, the singer.
Her sixth studio album, Two Eleven, released late last year and debuted on the Billboard charts at number three. Fans went ga-ga over the album’s first released single, “Put It Down.” With its heavy drop of bass chords and bold lyrics that feature Chris Brown, Billboard placed the single in the top five of the R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart.
“Chris Brown was just so hype. He has been a fan a long time and he gave a song to the project he wanted me to sing. The lyrics, plus his rapping: for me that stamped it,” says Norwood.
Along with Brown, other songwriting heavyweights that collaborated on the project included Sean Garrett and rising star Frank Ocean. Though Norwood had already laid the album’s foundation, when her co-writing team came on the scene the chemistry was instant. Norwood exclaims that Garrett completely “got me” and the he encouraged her to open up and not fear trying new things, a new sound. Working with Ocean was “a walk in the park. We immediately got each other,” recalls Norwood.
With 65,000 copies sold in its first week, Two Eleven is that something new Brandy fans were waiting for, and as Norwood explains it, “People are used to hearing me sing with stacks. This time it’s different. It’s pure, raw and vocal.”
With a successful release of a new album matched by a warm reception, you may think this is a comeback, but for Norwood it just may simply be the start of a new chapter or perhaps a sequel to her life. “Definitely in the beginning when I started getting opportunities like Dancing with the Stars, The Game, and everything up to now it felt like a comeback. Now I’m reinventing. I’m doing what I love and I feel so connected to it. It feels great to be connected to your purpose,” says Norwood.
Still, even true artists like Norwood have their doubts when industry pressures get to you and the footing is lost. On the album Afrodisiac Norwood belts out her contemplation on leaving music behind. Her doubts about her love for and place in music are heard on “Should I Go,” a track whose melody is a looped sample of “Clocks” by Coldplay. Her voice glides on the melody with the lyrics “too tempted to leave it in my rearview, because this game ain’t what I’m used to….premature releases of these albums of mine, making it hard for real entertainers to shine…” She admits there was a time she had some doubt, but now she knows where stands with music and how it is to be used.
“I can never leave music. Music is me. It’s the way I express myself. This is a responsibility. This is what I was put here to do. People relate and it creates this bond, where people need to feel like they are not alone,” says Norwood.
The doubting was in the midst of the quiet, but visible “Storm Brandy.” She grew up in front of our eyes. She was the charming teen girl, who only wanted to “be down with you.” Her mom firmly declared on Oprah “no belly button showing,” until she was grown. She was wholesome and it translated on our television screen weekly with her sitcom Moesha. She allowed us a look into her reality when MTV aired Special Delivery, which documented the birth of her daughter. It would not be until she was well into her twenties that Norwood would come clean about her flaws. She battled an eating disorder and suffered a breakdown. She was exhausted from the perfect image she felt she had to consistently show.
By the time her family’s reality show, VH1’s A Family Business, aired we saw a different Brandy; one that was fighting to grow into her own, but was not sure which way to go. Oddly, she did not think she was even that interesting enough for the show, but looking back she knows she was totally out of her lane.
“I wasn’t doing what I needed to do. I wasn’t operating in my purpose. I was busy finding love. I looked desperate. I didn’t like how I was depicted, but again I realize I wasn’t in my purpose at that time,” admits Norwood.
A Family Business also captured a dynamic that’s rarely seen, the sometimes tug-of-war between mother and daughter. For Norwood, she wanted liberation from her mom, Sonja, as a manager. It was a struggle that showed how hard it was for Sonja to let go of her baby girl and a test to see if Norwood could stand on her own. The other reason for her desired freedom; Norwood just wanted the supportive, listening, consulting mom. She understood this as she heard her contemporary Beyoncé go through the same struggle with her father, Matthew Knowles, who had managed Beyoncé’s career from the 1990s to 2011. There were days when Norwood clearly felt like she did not need the business partner mom at the moment and longed to have her parents give her advice on a personal matter.
“I totally relate to Beyoncé. That is so hard to do; for parents to switch hats,” says Norwood. “My mom wants the best for me in my personal and business life. The intention is the same, but sometimes business can overshadow the personal.”
Since the lessening of the business partner mom, Norwood feels that their relationship has become better and stronger because of it. “I have my mom back. She’s still very supportive and still lets her voice be known.”
The era of Storm Brandy brought on valued lessons that have carried over into her thirties and perhaps into her music. Life in her thirties has brought on a loud intuition that speaks to and guides her. She admits she does not always immediately listen, but she recognizes that she knows better. For Norwood, this new era is about making new mistakes, making better choices and not repeating her twenties.
“I learned when you know better you have to do better. In your twenties you are trying to figure out what you need to do. In your thirties you know and it’s about having the courage to listen and follow that guidance,” says Norwood.
These days as she indulges in the music of Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and Janelle Monáe, Norwood embraces “the now.” Of course family is a large part of what keeps her grounded. She runs from the negative, but embraces those that are not afraid to be honest with her. Her ultimate lesson, “You are bigger than your circumstance.” Part of her growth has taught her how to not to worry or think too hard. Her faith fuels her.
“Thank God I’m not struggling with those issues anymore. Those were issues I struggled with from my teen years into my twenties. I’m now a very spiritual person. God is in every decision I make. I journal and I pray,” reflects Norwood. “There’s a foundation there that’s very solid and I build from there. I’m not a person that tries to be perfect anymore. That takes a lot of pressure off my life. Perfect is boring. Who wants boring? I think people want to go through trial and error as opposed to being boring.”
Her daughter, Sa’rai, is now 10. Norwood has already schooled on that funny voice called intuition and is training her on how to listen to that voice, but she has also allowed room for her daughter to grow into her own identity. Despite the fact that Sa’rai has expressed interest in the entertainment business, Norwood is cautious about allowing her to enter into the industry.
“Honestly, she’s a lot stronger than I was at her age. Her life is just different, but I’m not going to allow her to go into the entertainment business until she has a sense of who she is. I think it is in her best interest for her to wait until she’s able to handle the industry,” says Norwood.
Ironically, in thinking about her relationship with her mom and how she grew up in the industry, Norwood chuckles at her preference for her daughter to be a lawyer or a doctor. She would even opt out of being a “momanger.”
“I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be as strong as my mom was for me,” she laughs.
2013 is shaping up to be the “Year of Brandy.” Not only will we see the return of her character Chardonnay on The Game, she will also be featured in Tyler Perry’s new flick, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, slated for release in late March.
Her character Melinda is different from anything she has ever played. “She’s very, very strong and independent, but she’s troubled. She’s running from something. There’s something in her past she doesn’t want to face and without giving too much away, her past catches up to her.” It is a role she was excited to play, but it is her role on The Game returning viewers are eager to see. Her character Chardonnay speaks a truth that is straight with no chaser.
“Oh I love playing her. She’s more like me so there is a certain freedom there when I’m in that role,” says Norwood. In the upcoming season six we see Chardonnay adjusting to her new married life with Jason (played by Coby Bell) and how she manages to still be her own woman while falling in love with Jason. “She’s very strong and free. It’s the thing that Jason loves about her,” adds Norwood.
Should the opportunity arise, Norwood just may do another reality show. At first we heard her adamantly declare no more reality shows, but should someone want to document her life as a mom and a musician, she might be game for it.
Also, in case someone may have plans on the table, she is claiming her stake in playing her mentor and friend, Whitney Houston, in a biopic. That would be the ultimate for Norwood.
Indeed Norwood’s last moments with our beloved Whitney was bittersweet. Within that same weekend of the 2012 Grammy’s, Norwood and her partner-in-song, Monica, had just seen and spoken with Houston. Houston had walked in on the ladies rehearsing and offered her homespun advice and encouragement. Hours later, she was gone. Norwood was in attendance at the famous Grammy party music executive Clive Davis gives annually.
“Last year I couldn’t handle it. I’m not going to lie. I was drunk. I had so much wine because it was hard. I just couldn’t handle it,” says Norwood. However, this year it was different. Though our hearts still ache at the devastating loss, Norwood, who attended the Clive Davis party again this year, claims that while it was still hard to go through with it, something was different.
“He played a film of her singing ‘All the Man I Need.’ It took you right to that concert. The power of her voice, her presence; it was unbelievable and surreal. It made you feel like she was right there.”
Track 11 on Two Eleven is entitled “Scared of Beautiful.” It is another Brandy testimony about how one can be scared to grow into who you are meant to be. Norwood’s growth has been an awesome thing to witness, made more beautiful to see her embrace the perfect imperfection she is.
“I definitely feel like I’m in a place of accepting who I am. The great thing about life is you keep discovering who you are. I’m not afraid to accept when I’m wrong. I own my nos and my yeses. I’m alive.”
During the Club Nokia show, she broke down in the middle of singing “Almost Doesn’t Count.”
“My lashes came off. I told the crowd, ‘Look, my eyes are burning I gotta take these lashes off. They allowed me to do that; to just be. I think people appreciate it when you are being yourself,” says Norwood.