When Brandy released Never Say Never on June 9, 1998, R&B had been in the throes of a contemporary renaissance. Brandy also found herself in a metamorphosis stage, both artistically and as a teen star entering adulthood. Comprised of 16 tracks, the singer's sophomore project not only chronicled her adjustments to love and music, but also blueprinted her signature silky, smooth sound.
In a few transformational years leading up to 1998, Missy Elliott and Timbaland framed contemporary R&B's formula of electronic bass beats underscoring witty feminist lyricism, birthing the subgenre of Electro-Hop&B. Singles from the all female-ensemble Waiting To Exhale soundtrack signaled how quiet storm R&B had been a viable candidate in the higher rungs of pop charts and adult contemporary radio. On the flip side, men such as Usher, Maxwell, and Ginuwine elongated babymaking music's presence in the market. D'Angelo and Erykah Badu's respective debuts Brown Sugar (1995) and Baduizm (1997) resparked neo-soul's fire in the mainstream. Mariah Carey made promoting hip-hop/pop&B collabs for singles a thing. Janet Jackson initiated the alternative R&B movement with Velvet Rope (1997). And yet, as the genre was getting more frank and sensually seductive, R&B still had more room for other talents to flourish into superstars.
By the time of the album's release, the then-19-year-old Brandy had wrapped up her third season of the hit UPN primetime sitcom Moesha. Whitney Houston selected her to co-star as the first black Cinderella for Disney, a role that premiered on ABC in 1997 to 60 million viewers. With emphasis placed on Brandy's filmography, fans and critics were more than ready for a full length return to music.
It had been four years since the release of her self-titled debut LP. The hip-hop soul stylings presented in her first single "I Wanna Be Down" started fading into the back of the musical subconscious. In 1996, she'd contribute the No. 2-peaking slow-groove "Sittin' Up In My Room" for the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack, and the Gladys Knight, Tamia, and Chaka Khan gospel-soul collaboration "Missing You" for Set It Off: Music From The New Line Cinema Motion Picture. Those songs peeped how Brandy was primed for the wave of R&B vocal masters flexing over lite midtempos. Plus, her lyric-mezzo soprano voice had grown richer over the years.
Brandy's soar to the top came as no coincidence, as black "femme camaraderie" was being championed in the 90s R&B scene and trickling into black cinema. Still, some media outlets found ways to insert competition for the sake of salacious rivalries, whether that be Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston or, for the sake of Brandy: Aaliyah and Monica.
Also 19 years old, Aaliyah finished her sophomore run with One In A Million by the start of 1998, segueing into more studio acting and modeling for Tommy Hilfiger. Her debut album was released in 1994 a few months prior to Brandy's, but the two always maintained divergent sounds and lanes — Aaliyah's New Jack Swing chillers opposite her two peers' hip-hop soul confections. Brandy's referred countless times to Aaliyah being an "inspiration." She even wanted to work with Timbaland and Missy for Never Say Never, but that had been prevented.
"The Boy is Mine"—the first single (and third track) from Never Say Never—found Brandy vocally dueling her alleged, younger nemesis Monica. Strategically, the spin on Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson's 1982 Thriller cut "The Girl Is Mine" was meant to turn the tables on media. Ironically, the single appeared on Monica's sophomore album of the same name. That project was released in July, forcing an inevitable charting competition between the two.
Although "The Boy Is Mine" didn't fall in line with the quirky tone of Missy and Timbaland's work, it managed to levitate on Electro-Hop&B's foundations with the production of Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. In all its loopy harp and warbling, funkdafied-guitars glory, "The Boy Is Mine" reintroduced Brandy and Monica as their generation's brightest vocalists who developed a stronger arsenal of belting, partner rifting, and emotional elecutions. The club jam—which was co-written by Brandy—dominated the summer of '98, staying put at the Hot 100 summit for 13 weeks.
Before he'd become a faithful client to Taylor Swift, Joseph Kahn directed music videos for hip-hop and R&B royalty—including Aaliyah's motocrossed visuals for "If Your Girl Only Knew" and SWV and Diddy's helicopter-propped "Someone." However, the video for "The Boy Is Mine" launched his pop music breakthrough.
Its sleek aesthetic featured leather furniture and pants juxtaposed by primarily purple and lavender color palettes on Brandy's side of the split screen. It ultimately placed a feel and look to the album's overall futuristic tone, while highlighting the simplistic modesty behind her journey to take music more seriously.
The Never Say Never album cover added to that, as it displayed a grayscale soft image of Brandy midsmile, only one half of her box braids hairdo and glowing face visible. It emphasized that through all the overarching innocence of her persona existed a gamechanging attitude well aware of what was at stake careerwise.
Never Say Never starts with a plane taking off at the beginning of "Intro," before jumping into a more hyper, remixed snippet of the title track. The opening moment symbolically played as Brandy leaving the ground of her old sound to fly into new territory, eventually to be hovering in space at the beginning of 2002's Full Moon.
The follow-up track, "Angel In Disguise," commences the album's conceptual narrative about reconsidering and reconciling with a former lover after the first heartbreak. The song's instrumental confidentially bounces with a tinkering bell and raindrops in the background as Brandy pulls an I-told-you-so on her jilted, returning ex-lover who had been "left … in the rain" by his rebound. The song's starting monologue also added to the album's (and that musical period's) affinity for dramatic cues as storytelling devices. Down the line on "In The Car (Interlude)," Brandy would be monikered "B-Rocka" in another career-long motif of the recorded phone conversation with Darkchild, about his next hot joint for her.
From the start to tail-end of Never Say Never, Brandy showcased her vocal dexterity and range through multiple facets of R&B, particularly with Electro-Hop and quiet storm brews of adult contemporary. Although most of the cuts had an electric sensibility directed towards the approaching new millennium, they helped finalize the standard for what a pop&B diva's midtempos and ballads should consist of.
Through silky computerized affects, a few chords from live instrumentation sprinkled their way through each tracks' forefront. This allowed for Brandy to modernize Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Mariah Carey's theatrical flare of running hooks for extended lengths of a song (particularly in the last minute) with nuanced adlibs in the background. That can best be heard in "Learn The Hard Way," a deep cut that contained a slight hint of a Spanish romantic waltz.
Just like her older contemporaries (and subsequent role models), Brandy had the ability to skate through her ballads, challenging herself to tackle Diane Warren's penning of "Have You Ever?" Promoted as her third single, the lyrics inquired about one's ability to "love somebody so much it makes you cry." Just as Warren's "Un-Break Your Heart" did for Toni Braxton, "Have You Ever?" gave Brandy a signature solo crossover ballad that reached No. 1.
The single prior to that, "Top Of The World" was modeled after Bad Boy's trademarked hip-hop soul revamp from '97. On the groove featuring Ma$e, Brandy reflects on media's unwavering nosiness with her famous lifestyle, snipping back "I'm just trying to be me"—a line coyly sampled in Lil' Kim's 2000 single "No Matter What They Say." The faster tempoed tracks meant for the clubs and afternoon radio proved Brandy still had a spunky step in her music. "U Don't Know Me (Like U Used To)" recalled the '94 days of Brandy, but elevated it for the '98 present and subsequent future. Revisiting the past in newly inventive ways would be a trade Brandy would also finesse as her discography expanded.
Since 1998 had been about modernizing R&B to the max with the hype of Y2K in near sight, the quiet storm format of radio followed suit. Brandy is one of the pioneering artists responsible for reshaping its sound. Her wearing an oversized men's suit in the "Have You Ever?" visual became a popular mainstay on BET's late night music video program Midnight Love. Quintessential deep cut "Put That On Everything" finds Brandy accessing her raspy, whisper registry over a zephyrous two-stepper akin to Brian McKnight's "Anytime" or SWV's "Rain."
Playing more into retrospection, Brandy tapped into what she had learned from working on the soundtracks of two of Black Hollywood's '96 blockbusters. "One Voice" seemed second nature for the singer as she conquered gospel-soul one time prior. "Truthfully" also honed in on the leading a choir shtick.
The album's titular song and "Almost Doesn't Count" best internalize the core essence of Never Say Never sonically, vocally, and contextually. Standing as the album's epicenter at track 8, "Never Say Never" seizes on Brandy's knack to ebb and flow with a catchy hook. Due to its sing-song structure, it could have worked as an answer to Jon B's "They Don't Know," which was released the same year. "Almost Doesn't Count" follows the same methodology.
Brandy's ability to grow musically while simultaneously balancing life as an actress served as role model material for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who had upcoming studio debuts. Nearly a decade after its release, that attitude radiated on other iconic albums from those finding themselves at a similar standpoint, including Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad—which was actually inspired by Brandy's Afrodisiac, the musical voodoo in 2004 that finally allocated Timbaland/Brandy linkage. "The Boy Is Mine" won Brandy her first Grammy. The Never Say Never era lasted until winter '99 domestically with "U Don't Know Me (Like You Used To)" as the final single, and in spring 2000 internationally.
Looking back at Never Say Never, one could argue that Brandy remodeled the construct of a teen-star-pushing-20. One whose able to control the narrative of their coming of age through careful examination, innovative spirit, and the purpose of coexisting, while still growing into their artistic existence.
More by Da'Shan Smith: