How Brandy’s ‘Never Say Never’ Invented ‘The Vocal Bible’
Four years before the release of her sophomore album, Never Say Never, the music industry was officially introduced to songbird Brandy Norwood with her debut album Brandy. So many wanted to know more about this 15-year-old Mississippi-born, California-raised teenager with the signature box braids, innocent lyrics, unique vocal style, and fresh sound. Previously having starred on the short-lived television sitcom "Thea" and touring as a background vocalist for Immature, Brandy was no stranger to the entertainment industry. However, her debut album propelled her further into the spotlight.
Brandy grew to be R&B's princess following her debut release. The innocent way she carried herself and her bubbly personality had people longing for more. Her debut album produced three Top 10 hits —including the "Brokenhearted" remix featuring Boyz II Men’s leading man and Brandy's rumored love interest, Wanya Morris. The album went to sell over six million copies worldwide.
Following her debut success, Brandy was featured on the critically acclaimed soundtracks for Waiting to Exhale (“Sittin’ Up In My Room”) and Set It Off (“Missing You” featuring Gladys Knight, Tamia, and Chaka Khan). Her star was shining bright, and her celebrity was growing stronger, which landed her the lead role in the teen sitcom, "Moesha." As if that weren’t enough, her idol Whitney Houston hand-picked Brandy to star alongside her as the first Black Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s television version of the fairytale. Despite this overwhelming success, Brandy wanted to get back to her roots — singing. The acting made Brandy a household name, but singing was in her blood. Following her debut album success, she knew it would be hard to break the sophomore album curse, so she strived to create a sound that would never be forgotten.
Enter Rodney Jerkins. During Brandy’s rise to fame in the early '90s, Jerkins was also making a name for himself. The preacher’s kid from New Jersey was a child prodigy, having grown up playing the piano, starting at the tender age of 5. Watching his father and older brother/future production collaborator Fred Jerkins III play the keys in church, Jerkins was in awe of that sound. Then, at the age of 14, his life changed for the better after a meeting with his idol, Teddy Riley. In an October 1999 story with BMI, Jerkins recalled meeting the superstar producer in a parking lot after waiting with his parents. “He took us into his building and showed me and my mother and father so much love. I got to play my music for him, and he loved it.” That encounter ended with an offer from Riley which Jerkins refused. He wanted to create his own lane. After doing a gospel rap album On the Move with his brother Fred, Jerkins knew the right direction for his career… production.
While working and perfecting what would be his signature sound, he needed a name — a name that could reflect his sound — a name that stuck. And at the age of 17, Darkchild was born and incorporated. According to Rodney, Darkchild perfectly described his music, which included what he considered a “dark sound” with lots of minor chords. From there, Darkchild signed a publishing deal with EMI and started to create history, working with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Joe, and Total, just to name a few.
While Darkchild focused on his sound, Brandy did the same. In a 1999 JET Magazine interview, Brandy stated “I'm not the little girl I was when I made my first record. My voice is a strong instrument now; my vocals come from both my heart and my diaphragm. My heart because I matured in the four years since the last album; I'm more emotionally there.” With a more mature voice and a desire for a graduated sound, it was time for new writers and producers. It was time for the inclusion of Darkchild, his team including his brother Fred and sister Sybil Jerkins Cherry and a host of other heavy hitters.
In a Kemper Radio interview from November 2012, fellow New Jersey preacher’s kid and songwriter LaShawn Daniels, who also gave Brandy the nickname B-Rocka, recalled the team’s first encounter with Brandy at a soul food restaurant in Los Angeles. There was a mutual respect for each other’s work, a mutual respect that eventually led them to the studio in October 1997. It was time to create the greatness that we now know as Never Say Never, and over the next few months, they did just that.
Brandy's vocals were tested like never before during the recording of Never Say Never. Famed producer David Foster encouraged Brandy to hit “money notes” while recording the Diane Warren-penned song “Have You Ever.” Brandy never had an issue with the use of her lower register, but Foster forced her to go outside of her comfort zone.
Similar to “Angel in Disguise,” originally an interlude, Brandy's backing vocals were too good and turned into a full-length song. The recording of Never Say Never saw other changes throughout the process with some of the most popular songs and singles. Bad Boy Records was IT in the late '90s. After working through a few different concepts for “Top of the World,” Brandy and Darkchild decided to add Harlem World’s golden child and Bad Boy Records star Ma$e to the track for a perfect blend of Bad Boy and Darkchild.
No change proved to be more monumental than the addition of Monica on the most popular track, “The Boy is Mine.” Although Monica’s voice is a natural fit track with Brandy’s, initially she wasn't included on the song. The track was originally recorded with just Brandy’s vocals. However, the group decided to play upon what, at the time, was a fictional beef between Brandy and Monica that was instigated by the media. With “The Boy is Mine” being a battle over a man, bringing in Monica to even out the song and add fuel to the tension rumors, proved to be a jackpot move in the end.
Never Say Never was completed in the spring of 1998 and ready for a June 9 release. Brandy, Darkchild, Foster and so many others had no idea that this album would go on to be the singer’s best-selling album to date. Darkchild’s production mixed with Brandy’s complex yet controlled runs, effortless riffs, and dope background vocal arrangements were a musical marriage made in heaven. On top of all of this, the pair were so young, with Brandy being 19, and Darkchild 20 when the album was released.
Some music critics and Brandy aficionados argue that the singer’s third studio album Full Moon secured her place in R&B history and catapulted her into the greats category, complete with the "Vocal Bible" title. As Brandy stated in an August 2012 interview with Complex, “To find Rodney Jerkins was rare. They don’t come around like that every day. To find him, it was a match made in heaven, and it still is…. He helped me to be versatile…. He helped me find my voice.” Brandy grew confident as both an artist and a young woman on Never Say Never, creating an album that showed both personal and vocal growth. There was a sound that was created 20 years ago with Brandy’s vocals and Rodney’s production that is still unmatched. A sound that gave us Never Say Never, a sound that birthed the Vocal Bible.
Watch "The Boy is Mine" featuring Monica.