Happy 10th Anniversary to Brandy’s fifth studio album Human, originally released December 5, 2008.
Upon its release in June 2004, Afrodisiac—Brandy’s fourth album—was meant to be another progressive crown atop an already groundbreaking decade of recording activity. Instead, more was made of the mild numbers it pulled commercially despite its promising reviews. Hosted by Atlantic Records—the imprint that had launched Brandy in 1994—Afrodisiac fell victim to a changing of the guard there.
Dissatisfied with the subsequent mismanagement of that affair, Brandy intrepidly sought a release from any lasting contractual obligations to Atlantic once the album’s promotional cycle wrapped. Afterward, Brandy was a free agent and that independence laid the initial groundwork for her next album. Untitled at its start, Brandy’s fifth song cycle changed production hands several times as she eagerly searched for its creative pulse.
Unexpectedly—and tragically—during these preliminary recording sessions, Brandy was involved in a vehicular incident on December 30, 2006; the car crash resulted in an accidental fatality. While no charges were brought against the singer, she was irrevocably changed. In just three years, Brandy had undergone two life-altering events—professionally and personally.
But, this gifted the singer with a newfound sense of artistic liberation and an appreciation for her own existence that would heavily influence her still pending album, soon to be aptly titled Human. Throughout most of 2007 and up through to the spring of 2008—upon which a deal with Epic Records was inked—Brandy was still sorting through collaborators and commissioned song pieces. By the time Epic settled on a late fall/early winter drop date, the effort had found its thematic voice.
A superbly varied retinue featured alongside Brandy on Human. There was the return of Rodney Jerkins and his “Darkchild collective” who were significant architects on Brandy’s second and third albums. Having parted ways for Afrodisiac, their reunion lent Human six of its seventeen sides.
The remaining eleven cuts saw input from additional guests including (but not limited to) Toby Gad, Brian Seals, Natasha Bedingfield, Esthero, James Fauntleroy, Chauncey Willis, Nadir “RedOne” Khayat, Bruno Mars and Christopher Breaux. Khayat, Mars and Breaux were noteworthy collaborators as all three (individually) were soon to rise as formidable forces within popular music over the next ten years. Breaux is more likely to be recognized under his now assumed alias, Frank Ocean.
A capable writer in her own regard, Brandy’s songwriting contributions had typically been minimal and this proved true with Human. Still, her demonstrably strong co-writing credit on the title track encapsulates the overall empowered (albeit vulnerable) spirit intimated on the record.
Though the writing on Human cooperates with its musical and vocal arrangements, it is its lyrics that drive the long player. All the song scripts are seasoned with an insightful, yet imaginative maturity that extolls the virtues of self-examination (“Piano Man,” “Camouflage”) and love. The latter subject splits in two contextually to address its romantic (“The Definition”) and universal elements (“Warm It Up (With Love)”). Brandy avoids any cliché pitfalls that can fell an artist working with emotive material by using her voice to convincingly paint aural pictures suffused with her own real-life experiences.
An expressive lyric contralto, the grain and tonality of Brandy’s voice is inimitable in its sound and approach. Brandy is in rare form on the sum of Human. “Right Here (Departed)” and “Long Distance”—the two compositions lifted as its only singles—represent Brandy’s obvious technical proficiency without undercutting the heart and soul emblematic on these cuts. As good as these two tracks (and the other album entries) are, “A Cappella (Something’s Missing)” puts the vocalist at a new level of singing supremacy.
Intoning “boom” and “clap,” the words are then continuously looped to form a semi-chant that’s only adorned by Brandy and the facsimile of a distorted electric guitar riff; Brandy is, in effect, the music. “A Cappella (Something’s Missing)” provides a career-defining moment that achieves maximum emotional impact by syncing its existentialist lyrics with a vocal that is worthy of them.
Crisp and colorful, the production on Human makes shrewd, but considerate use of the R&B and black pop music of the period. This is important to understand as the sonic energy at play on Human is as mysteriously delicate as it is forceful in a way that Full Moon (2002) and Afrodisiac were not. Whether employing a mix of bombastic synth beats and inventive effects (“1st & Love,” “Gonna Find My Love”) or tapping into warmer, organic instrumentation (“Torn Down,” “Fall”), it all forms a riveting soundscape primed for discovery.
Human was made available for purchase in early December 2008; almost immediately it was beset with slow sales due to an appalling lack of support from Epic Records. Uniformly impressive reviews softened the blow, but behind the scenes Brandy was understandably frustrated with a repeat performance of label indifference. It came as no surprise that Brandy’s tenure with the imprint was brief; a dissolution of her Epic deal spearheaded by a random industry upstart turned executive leader (Amanda Ghost) came only a few short months after Human made its debut. It was an unjust fate for such a strong collection of songs.
In the years following, Brandy has politely kept the album at arm’s length due to its commercial complications. And yet, the record’s renown among her fans never wavered, even the more conventionally flashy Two Eleven (2012) that appeared four years later could not vanquish the affection many held toward Human.
Brandy’s investment in Human is evident in every fiber of the project; there was truly a message to the music. Such fearlessness and vulnerability—in place of standard manufactured drama—on an album has become increasingly scarce in the mainstream rhythm and blues genre. Possessed of both qualities in abundance, Human remains, arguably, Brandy’s best work to date.