Every artist has that one album that is career-defining. It’s the album that takes them to another level of creativity that showcases their true star power. For the late Michael Jackson, it was Thriller. For Usher, it was Confessions and for Brandy, it was her sophomore LP, Never Say Never.
Twenty years to the day of its release (June 9, 1998), the impact of Brandy’s magnum opus is felt between the grooves of R&B today. Think the playful vibes of Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” the vocals of Sevyn Streeter or the storytelling of Jhene Aiko. Before their respective careers, there was Brandy, who possessed all traits and then some.
Her project came four years after her self-titled debut, a notion that would be considered blasphemous today. But Brandy was in no way resting on her laurels. During the 90s and early aughts, Brandy was the R&B ‘it girl,’ with mainstream appeal. She was the epitome of the “girl next door,” which was showcased on our television screens every week as she starred on the hit UPN (now CW) sitcom, Moesha.
When Brandy entered the studio in the fall of 1997 to begin recording, she wanted to break away from the songs heard on her debut. But in some ways, the Brandy album has similarities to Never Say Never when it comes to ballads such as “Brokenhearted” and “Always On My Mind.” Both records have the then-14-year-old singer crooning about heartbreak and longing, themes she would come to revisit on her sophomore offering.
This time around, things would be different– enter Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Brandy’s record label connected her with the then-upcoming producer, and the next is R&B music history.
Jerkins, along with his production and songwriting team consisting of brother, Fred Jerkins III, and LaShawn Daniels, gave Brandy a timeless mix of R&B ballads, up-tempo and mid-tempo tracks. He was the mastermind behind Never Say Never’s hit lead single, “The Boy Is Mine,” a duet with Monica. Playing on the rumors in the press about the two songstresses disliking each other, Jerkins thought it would be cool to put those stories to a song.
It paid off with “The Boy Is Mine” spending 13 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and winning both ladies a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. Brandy had officially arrived.
In addition to Never Say Never having commercial appeal with “The Boy Is Mine,” the album is strong in its R&B roots. “Angel In Disguise” is arguably one of the best opening tracks on a 90s R&B album. With backing vocals from R&B veteran Joe, the song tells a story of Brandy playing tug of war with her love with him pulling back emotionally. It’s mid-tempo production leaves any listener drenched in all the feelings as Brandy stands her ground in the game of love.
Let’s keep in mind, when Never Say Never is released, Brandy was only 19-years-old. One would never know that seeing as the album’s messages and lyrics appear to be from someone 5 to 10 years older.
Even though there are songs about heartbreak, Brandy is not singing about wallowing in her sorrow. Instead, she’s belting out lyrics about the aftermath of a bad relationship and why she’s already out the door. So, what or who could have possibly inspired her to sing and write (she co-wrote six of the album’s 14 songs) such convincing and realistic songs about love?
Brandy was in an extremely low-key relationship with Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men for two years. You might remember he was featured on the remix to her single, “Brokenhearted” off her debut album. The singer only recently confirmed their relationship on her April 2012 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. Many of the songs on Never Say Never were inspired by her and Morris’ relationship and subsequent breakup.
One of Never Say Never’s signature tracks, “Almost Doesn’t Count,” which was released as a single, has some of the album’s most mature lyrics as it describes a lover who just can’t get right in the relationship.
For the song’s chorus, Brandy sings, “I can’t keep on lovin’ you/ One foot outside the door/ I hear a funny hesitation/ Of a heart that’s never really sure/ Can’t keep on tryin’/ If you’re lookin’ for more/ Than all that I could give you/ Than what you came here for. On the bridge, she took you to church with, But you can’t get to heaven/ Half off the ground/ Everybody knows/ Almost doesn’t count.”
The maturity didn’t stop at “Almost Doesn’t Count.” “Learn the Hard Way” tells an ex-lover goodbye for all the mistreatment, but it’s not just the lyrics which make this song special, it’s the way Brandy delivers them. It’s hard to ignore the soulfulness and sassiness of her voice as she sings, “Never took the time to think of/ All the love that we have shared/ I realized that most of the time/ You were just not there/ It was hard for me to see when/ When your love was blinding me/ But now I know I have to let you go your separate way.”
The lyrics ring true today as situationships and missteps in young love are becoming more natural by the minute.
When you think of a Brandy ballad, “Have You Ever” is the obvious song to come to mind. If there’s a list of the best 90s R&B songs about unrequited love, “Have You Ever” is definitely in the top 10.
Released as Never Say Never’s third single, “Have You Ever” reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song finds Brandy having more than just a crush on a guy. She’s downright in love and wants to know why he won’t love her back. If you were in middle or high school at the time, “Have You Ever” was probably the song you kept on repeat to help you cope with the feelings you had about your first crush.
One thing even casual Brandy fans have come to appreciate about the singer is her signature vocal tone and runs. This is mainly heard on the tracks, “Tomorrow,” “Truthfully” and the power ballad, “One Voice.” The latter even became the UNICEF theme song for its 50th anniversary.
So, after all is said and done about Never Say Never, where do we hold it in regard to its impact? It is arguably one of the best R&B albums of the 90s. Speaking of the 90s, what music lovers appreciated most about the coveted decade is the variety of artists we were blessed with. There were a plethora of young female R&B singers at this time, but Brandy’s star power allowed her to transcend genres by transforming her style of R&B into pop music. It also led to her now-classic roles in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella with her idol, Whitney Houston and Double Platinum with Diana Ross.
Never Say Never is connected to Brandy’s legacy in ways her other albums are not. It took her music, career and image to the next level while also paving the way for her 2002 follow-up, Full Moon. If released today, Never Say Never would serve as plenty of caption quotes on Instagram and most importantly, continue the blooming progression of R&B.
Either way, the music’s songs and themes still ring true today.
Get in all your feels by replaying the album below.
Brittney Fennell is a freelance journalist hailing from the New York tri-state area who still believes there is a space for genuine culture shifters. You can keep up with her ideas, adventures and opinions on Twitter and Instagram: @ThisIsBrittneyF.