Brandy is among the few artists to achieve mainstream success as a teenager and make smooth artistic transitions across a multi-decade career. The singer and actor emerged during the post-new jack swing era like the kid sister of Mary J. Blige or TLC, specializing in pop-oriented R&B epitomized by her first two singles, "I Wanna Be Down" and "Baby," both Top Ten crossover hits that made her debut, Brandy (1994), a multi-platinum smash. The title role on the popular sitcom Moesha, a chart-topping and Grammy-winning duet with Monica ("The Boy Is Mine," the longest-running number one female duet in Billboard chart history), and the multi-platinum follow-up Never Say Never (1998) all reaffirmed Brandy's broad appeal through the end of the '90s. While she could have continued to crank out safe contemporary R&B as her acting career took precedence, she made the most out of her subsequent studio time, highlighted by Full Moon (2002) and Afrodisiac (2004), progressive stylistic hybrids that earned her consecutive Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary R&B Album. Since the mid-2000s, Brandy has recorded less often, with Human (2008) and Two Eleven (2012) maintaining her unbroken streak of Top Ten R&B/hip-hop albums. Amid constant work onscreen and on-stage during the second half of the 2010s, Brandy's musical output has been limited to a handful of singles and featured appearances.
Brandy Norwood was born in McComb, Mississippi, and began singing in church at age two. When she was four, her father was hired as music director at a church in Carson, California, and after a few years, she decided to pursue a professional singing career, inspired by Whitney Houston. With the help of her family, she began hunting for a record contract, and in 1992 began singing backup for the young R&B group Immature. Brandy enrolled in the Hollywood High Performing Arts Center and launched an acting career, appearing in films like Arachnophobia and Demolition Man. At the age of 14, she landed a record deal with a performance at an Atlantic Records talent showcase. Around the same time, she won a supporting role on the short-lived ABC sitcom Thea. In September 1994, Brandy released her self-titled debut album, which immediately produced Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten smashes in "I Wanna Be Down" and "Baby," both of which hit number one on the R&B/hip-hop chart; "Brokenhearted" and "Best Friend" went on to smaller successes. Brandy was certified quadruple platinum within two years.
In 1996, Brandy scored her biggest hit yet with "Sittin' Up in My Room," recorded for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack; it hit number two pop and number one R&B/hip-hop. Early that year, she also debuted on UPN as the star of Moesha, for which she took a lengthy recording hiatus. Apart from "Sittin' Up in My Room," her only real activity over the next couple of years was the Set It Off soundtrack single "Missing You," on which she teamed with Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Tamia. In 1997, she branched out by taking the title role in Disney's made-for-TV version of Cinderella, appearing alongside her idol Whitney Houston; the film's star power and integrated cast made it a significant ratings success. Finally, Brandy set about recording her second album. Never Say Never was released in June 1998, and its first single, the Monica duet "The Boy Is Mine," was a mammoth hit, topping the Hot 100 for a staggering 13 weeks. In its wake, "Top of the World" (featuring guest rapper Mase) and "Have You Ever?" were both substantial hits as well, with the latter becoming Brandy's first solo number one Hot 100 hit. Never Say Never spun off three additional singles, including the Top 20 pop hit "Almost Doesn't Count," on its way to sales of over five million copies. "The Boy Is Mine" subsequently won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Meanwhile, Brandy's acting career continued to blossom. In 1998, she landed her first major theatrical film role in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and the following year, she appeared in another TV movie, Double Trouble, with Diana Ross. She concentrated mostly on Moesha until the show was canceled in the spring of 2001. The same year, she voiced a character in the animated film Osmosis Jones. In February 2002, Brandy released her third album, Full Moon, which entered the Billboard 200 chart at number two, spun off an immediate hit in "What About Us?" — her seventh Top Ten pop single — and was subsequently nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary R&B Album. That summer, Brandy gave birth to her first child. Her pregnancy was the subject of an MTV documentary series, Brandy: Special Delivery.
The singer's fourth album, Afrodisiac, was released in June 2004. Its lead single, "Talk About Our Love," was produced by Kanye West and peaked at number 36 on the Hot 100. Although it too received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Album, Afrodisiac was Brandy's last recording for Atlantic. Signed to Epic, she returned in December 2008 with Human, an adult contemporary-leaning set that entered the Billboard 200 at number 15. A couple years later, she starred alongside her brother and parents in the reality television series Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business, with a soundtrack of sorts following in 2011. She teamed up with Monica again in 2012 for the single "It All Belongs to Me" (which appeared on Monica's New Life), and months later issued the collaboration-heavy Two Eleven, which topped the R&B/hip-hop chart and entered the Billboard 200 at number three. The Chris Brown collaboration "Put It Down" became Brandy's tenth Top Ten R&B/hip-hop single as a headliner.
For the rest of the 2010s, Brandy devoted most of her time to acting, highlighted by roles on the series The Game, Zoe After Ever, and Star, as well as the lead role in the Broadway production of Chicago. Her limited recordings during these years included the bluesy belters "Beggin & Pleadin" (2016) and "Freedom Rings" (2019), a featured appearance on August Greene's cover of Sounds of Blackness' "Optimistic," and a duet with Daniel Caesar, "Love Again," which earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance. ~ Steve Huey & Andy Kellman