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The Rebirth of Brandy

The Rebirth of Brandy

Story and Images by Todd Williams

Dec. 20, 2006. While driving on the Los Angeles freeway, multiplatinum recording artist Brandy was involved in a multiple car collision. The accident cost one woman, 38-year-old Awatef Aboudihaj, her life. A singer who had grown up under the heat of the spotlight was now thrust into the middle of a horrific tragedy; the police, the paparazzi and the public all swarmed around her for answers and to gauge her reaction. She hadn’t released an album since 2004, and now, it didn’t seem likely that she would release anything anytime soon. Devastated, Brandy completely withdrew from the public eye, unsure of how, when or if she would emerge.

“I thought that maybe I don’t need to do this again …”

Today, Brandy has emerged. From a green room at CBS Studios in Manhattan, to be exact. It’s a rainy December morning, and she’s been running around for days, the kind of flurry that can be expected for a 15-year industry veteran who’s just released her first album in four years. She’s as leggy as ever, but the bounciness of her teen years has matured into a confident slink. Instead of bounding into the room, she strolls. After a few minutes, she touches on her mind-set during her hiatus, and how the events of 2006 almost broke her. “So many thoughts ran through my mind,” she says, her face downcast as she thinks back to the days following the horrific accident. “I thought that maybe I don’t need to do this again.”

The emotional weight of that day, coupled with the stress of the public scrutiny surrounding it, called for a much-needed break. “It was very necessary for me to step back because I had been doing this since I was 15 years old,” she acknowledges now. “When you grow up in the industry, you don’t really have time to develop and get in touch with who you are. I needed time to be a mom and see the things inside of me.”

In the aftermath of that life-altering catastrophe, the skew of the conversation surrounding Brandy tended to focus on the accident and how it had ruined her career. Most seemed to cast her as a former child star whose luck ran out on that fateful day on the freeway, but the truth is, Brandy’s story has long been more complex than the average ‘celebutante’ — even when compared to a certain blonde with a history of underwear issues. In what has become something of a child star cliché, Brandy’s transition into adulthood was anything but smooth. After learning she was pregnant in 2003, she ‘married’ the baby’s father, her longtime producer Robert “Big Bert” Smith. The matrimony was soon proven to have been an elaborate hoax — a ruse designed to protect the pregnant starlet’s image. While acknowledging that she and Smith shared a ‘spiritual union and true commitment to each other,’ they parted ways soon after her daughter, Sy’rai, was born. The singer began dating NBA star Quentin Richardson, but the couple’s 15-month engagement ended abruptly in 2005. And while she’s cordial and friendly — even when discussing uncomfortable past events — the openness of her adolescence is a distant memory, replaced with the guarded skepticism of a woman who’s spent the last decade having her life splayed across front pages and blogs. “Media is crazy now,” says Brandy pensively. “The paparazzi weren’t out when I was 15 or 16. But now, it’s a totally different take on putting people’s business out on the street — or you feeling the pressure to talk about your business.”

After two years of soul-searching and doting over her daughter, it became obvious to the 29-year-old that she needed to get back to what she loved. “Obviously, this is what I’m born to do. I had to get that thought [of quitting] out of my head quick[ly],” says Brandy. Her fans have remained supportive through the trials and tribulations, and even in her darkest hour, she found their support to be extremely therapeutic. “When people appreciate your work and when they are inspired by you, or [your] music has gotten them through a hard time, they give you so much love,” she shares. “I always embrace that because the fans are the reason why I do what I do. They motivate me and believe in me when I don’t believe in myself.”

“My perspective [on] life has changed, and [with] everything I do, I want [it] to have meaning and purpose…”

When hearing such platitudes come from pop stars, most people tend to scoff and roll their eyes. We typically just want our artists to sing their songs and then go about their business — they’re not world leaders or religious figures, so why should they think it’s their responsibility to do something more? There’s an obvious cynicism in that line of thinking, especially when you consider the fact that artists — like all of us — can come to a personal crossroads that demands their art be taken a bit more seriously. Prior to the accident, she had released Afrodisiac in 2004. While the album was critically acclaimed, it was considered a huge commercial disappointment. Shortly thereafter, Brandy parted ways with her longtime label, Atlantic Records. But, when she decided to return to recording, she was apprehensive about finding a home. “The label shift is very interesting because after Atlantic and I transitioned, I thought I wouldn’t find a place that believed in me as much as [they] did and that made me feel like I was at home. Epic has that same belief [in me] and support that Atlantic had. Epic gave me a second chance to fulfill my dreams.”

Her latest album, Human, is a reflection of that renewed sense of hope and purpose. The songs follow themes of love, loss and perseverance. “The album does have a very uplifting tone,” she says. “What that says about me is that I want to be an inspiration to everyone who hears my music. My perspective [on] life has changed, and [with] everything I do, I want [it] to have meaning and purpose.”

In light of the myriad of transitions in the singer’s life of late, Brandy found comfort in the familiarity of working and she headed back into the studio. She once again called upon her most consistent collaborator — longtime producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. “Rodney Jerkins and I just have a magic that I can’t really explain,” she says of her creative partner. “I just think it’s who we both are, we were born to do this together.”

Brandy also found a kindred spirit in a new songwriting partner, Grammy® Award-winner Natasha Bedingfield. “I’ve always been a huge fan of hers and she’s also an incredible writer,” says Brandy. She smiles coyly and throws a not-so-subtle reference to her past relationships. “We wrote a beautiful song called ‘Fall’ — it’s about not being afraid to fall in love, even if you have been heartbroken.”

“My daughter is my inspiration. She lets me know that it’s OK to make mistakes …”

Brandy is not concerned about competing with the flavor-of-the-month teen starlets churning out dance-pop anthems. She appears focused on making music that is sincere self-expression — an acknowledgement of the trials that she’s been through and an affirmation of the woman she’s become. And she never loses sight of the one thing that has forced her to grow up the most — musically and personally. “Being a mother is one of the best blessings that I’ve ever received,” she says, a slight smile creeping onto her face. “My daughter is my inspiration. She lets me know that it’s OK to make mistakes and be human about who you are. Forgiveness is her main thing. When you do something wrong, [children] don’t hold it against you. You learn that being a mom. She’s taught me so much patience — she’s amazing. I love her so much.” Her thoughts drift to Sy’rai — and Brandy’s voice gets a little softer. “I miss her — because I’ve been working so hard.”

And there is no rest for the weary. Her thoughts of little Sy’rai are interrupted by an assistant reminding her that its time for sound-check. Snapped back to reality, Brandy nods that she’s ready and puts her game face on, then pauses again, seemingly soaking in the fact that she’s in a television studio on a dank winter day, miles away from her daughter and operating on four hours of sleep. She smiles to herself, as if she needs to make one more proclamation before leaving. “I do what I do because I was born to do it,” she says. “This is a gift, and I feel like if I don’t share it, it’s not really a gift. When I took time off and I wasn’t doing music, I felt unfulfilled. This is who I am. I have to give me — or why am I here, you know?”

She’s still smiling, even through everything that’s happened; from career pitfalls to personal tragedies and failed relationships; her trademark smile still can radiate that enthusiasm and sincerity she exuded as a youngster. “The trying times taught me that there’s an inner strength that I have — that we all have,” Brandy says. “Once you get in touch with that — you can move through things and you can overcome things. And faith in a higher power — something bigger than yourself — can get you through anything. That’s what I’ve learned.”