Brandy’s third album, Full Moon, inspired a generation of R&B experimentalists
Original release date: 5 March 2002
Label: Atlantic Records
This article is taken from Issue 129. Get your copy now via the online store.
It’s late 2001 in California. Mid-afternoon; a blue sky dusted with puffs of clouds. But you can’t tell from inside the huge studio where Brandy is filming the video for What About Us?, the forthcoming single off her third studio album Full Moon. The 22-year-old singer and her director, Dave Meyers, sit between scenes, joking around.
“I’m not a man-hater,” Brandy laughs. A beat. “I just hated this one guy.” She lands her punchline smoothly, before laughing it off. And there you see it, a seamless blend of minimising her feelings and comedic timing – skills she picked up as the teen lead in hit sitcom Moesha. Lyrically, What About Us? shot a withering eye-roll at promises broken by a former lover. But, even as its video debuted a more grown-up image, Brandy seemed to recoil from talking about the pain that brought the song, and album, together.
The truth is, Full Moon was, at that point, her most personal offering. It followed 1998’s Never Say Never – a searing commercial success (ever heard of her duet with Monica, The Boy is Mine?) that sold millions of copies globally and first paired Brandy with producer Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins. On Full Moon, they deepened their creative relationship. “From the door, all she wanted to do was be reinvented,” Jerkins told MTV News in 2002. “So it pushed me to that level: ‘OK, I gotta come up with something sick.’”
That reinvention led to a metallic pop-R&B offering that spanned 16 tracks. At the time, the critical reception was mixed. Pop albums were not, for one, meant to be that long. Still, Brandy’s voice sounded rich, stronger, newly husky as though she’d been up scream-singing in a club the night before. R&B fans immediately got it. But reviews at the time couldn’t quite make sense of the shifts in style that have since become the norm for pop’s genre-free magpies. Later, Full Moon would gain recognition as a template for the melismatic runs and vocal production of R&B to come. But, before that, Brandy had to face the trauma that catalysed the album.
Nearly all of the interviews around Full Moon lobbed highly personal questions at Brandy’s head. This was partially down to the lyrical content: she was singing about relationships, about the way lust paws at your collar, dragging you deep into your feelings (Like This, When You Touch Me). About the horror of being broken-hearted, as on the middle-finger salute of I Thought or Anybody; a call-and-response bop charting the shame of a toxic, on-off relationship.
The backstory was more complex than “he loves me, he loves me not”, though. Brandy had collided into burnout, an abusive relationship and disordered eating by the end of her teens. It all became too much. After wrapping up a world tour in May 1999, then going right back to shooting Moesha, Brandy had what she called an “old-fashioned nervous breakdown” in November 1999. She was hospitalised. “I was overwhelmed with all of the work, and all of the fame,” she later confessed to Oprah Winfrey. “It all happened at once.” Faux-concern allowed interviewers to probe for juicy details.
Feeling rested by 2001 – and with Moesha cancelled – Brandy galloped through a marriage and pregnancy with Robert ‘Big Bert’ Smith, who was part of Full Moon’s production team, to channel her rough couple of years into the project. Now, it sounds like some of the very best of 2000s R&B: angular, even hectic at times. Like chrome rings looped through leather, slick lipgloss and the flick of bone-straight hair(with a few treacly slow jams folded into the mix, of course). And it was experimental. All in Me starts with air-light harmonies before lurching into a UK garage interpolation. You’d either be left delighted or utterly confused.
Since Full Moon’s release, artists from India.Arie, Jill Scott and Rihanna to Jessie J, Kehlani and Jennifer Hudson have found inspiration in either Full Moon itself or the vocal dexterity it turned into Brandy’s calling card. The album would eventually lead to her long-standing “Vocal Bible” nickname. On that sound stage in 2001, she didn’t know that yet. She looked a little unsure, nervous even. But she had a video to make.