I’ll be the first to admit that pop music doesn’t make sense to me even on its own terms. Britney Spears, but not Nellie McKay? Occasionally someone genuinely cool like Nelly Furtado (downright subversive by pop standards) slips through the cracks of popularity, making people forget that they usually like their women to be robotic fantasy mirrors conveying to other women an image of unattainable physical perfection and to men the desire to have an inexperienced whore slave.
I guess the reason I’ve never been able to determine what drives pop, is that it is only partially driven by the quality of the music and much more mercurially motivated by this sordid constellation of consumer desires many of which have absolutely nothing to do with artistry. Of course, this is just my long-winded way of saying that I’ve never understood why Brandy isn’t queen of the pop hill, though I suspect it has much to do with her combination of sass and class and her refusal to undress for success.
Afrodisiac is an openly ironic title for an album that’s much more likely to reopen old heartbreak wounds than get you heated up “down there”. Given a tossed in reference to Coldplay, Brandy is probably trying to work through a bit of sorrow using her own indefatigable pop instincts. It clearly seems like an album born of depression and betrayal, the kind of chin-up in the face of adversity that a friend gives you right before she breaks into tears. Nearly every song refers back to the unnamed half-stepper, be it defiantly, dejectedly or with straight-up resignation. “Where You Wanna Be” is one of a handful of songs on the album chronicling her loss, beginning with the pitch perfect line “me and you, bleeding through” and girded by a somber back-clack of a beat that raises the tempo of what would otherwise be a complete dirge. But Brandy is not Cat Power and she prefers that even the sad numbers be given the lifeline of a beat, “I Tried”, the album’s best outing, finds her flexing her voice sorrowfully on a track that’s both funky and drowned, a heavily burdened song that nonetheless offers up a relentless groove. It’s a mature reflection on love in that most of the songs draw clear distinctions between want and need and the agony that comes from doing right by yourself even if it means leaving someone you’re passionately attached to. In the land of the love song, this is practically dissertation-level depth.
Brandy’s best when she’s pissed, like the neck rolling singles of her past efforts, “The Boy Is Mine” and “What About Us?”. .Beyonce couldn’t pull this shit off even if Brandy gave classes; because even when the erstwhile Destiny’s Child belts it out she sounds like one high heel is cut an inch shorter than the other. “Sadiddy” barrels in one of Timbaland’s twisted beat structures, which sounds like a folding chair collapsing repeatedly. Its message is a warning flare for players and a rallying cry for women dissed, bothered, and bewildered. Brandy doesn’t completely drop the club thumpers, laying down “Turn It Up”, with drums that trip over themselves and alternate their pace while Brandy breathing in to keep the pace bumping. While it’s been said that Brandy’s voice isn’t exactly a barn burner, it’s not mentioned enough that she does more than enough with what she’s got. She never leaves her voice hanging in spotlit scarcity, folding it variegated terracing, whispering out the lead track, shouting in the back-up, and piling each song with enough interlocking sounds to create the tightly packed illusion of vocal massiveness. I admit that I’m not one for verbal acrobatics anyway. I think Mariah Carey’s voice weakens the earth’s protective shell every time someone plays one of her albums.
Most of the weakest numbers get pushed to the end, where songs like “How I Feel” sound exhausted and porously dull. On traditional ballads, without the punch up of a good backbeat, Brandy can drift and drain, melting into the song without making more than a breeze of an impression. Sadly, the last track, “Should I Go”, falls squarely into this category, despite the limp handclaps, which seem placed more to keep you awake than to actually support the song.
Afrodisiac is the crown jewel in Brandy’s discography, sacrificing the obvious pop singles for songs and sounds more consistently mature and challenging, blessed with Timbaland’s ear for pop sculpture. Still, it’s unlikely that this effort will plant her squarely ahead of her lessers in the field of pop music. It’s beat-filled melancholy, an affirmation wrapped in a lament, it’s the Coldplay record that the R&B set have never had.