Despite the concurrent, Siamese hype of their early careers, neither Brandy nor Monica really popped off as long-term R&B stars. By the '00s, both their profiles were trumped by the likes of Aaliyah, Beyonce, and Ciara. Monica went platinum twice—with Miss Thang in 1995, and then The Boy Is Mine in 1998—and then never again. Brandy pressed on through the early '00s, working with producers Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland, and Kanye West, and releasing Full Moon in 2002. After she sang the hook of Kanye's Late Registration cut "Bring Me Down" in 2005, that was the last many fair-weather fans heard from/of Brandy Norwood, save for R&B's stalwarts and reality television watchers.
Of course, we're always down for a critical reevaluation. Most recently, Solange's caping for "Brandy deep cuts" is as ripe a provocation as any to revisit both Brandy and Monica's respective catalogs, to finally declare a winner in the War Over That Boy, a beef that never really was.
JUDNICK: Despite the fact that I was always Team Monica back in the day, I actually have to side with Brandy on this one, seeing as how Never Say Never and Afrodisiac remain two of the hottest R&B albums of all time, to this day.
I had abandoned Brandy for a while, but after she dropped that single with Chris Brown—it's an injustice how good this dude is at writing my favorite songs. And I was forced to listen to 2012’s Two Eleven, which is so solid I would've written 1,500 words on the comeback of one Brandy Norwood.
In high school my argument was always that Monica could simply sing better than Brandy, but I know now that I simply had not begun to appreciate the vocal range of a woman with a deep voice. Now that I am old and constantly being called “sir” on the phone, I realize her range is fantastic, and the bass of her voice gives it this wild, stand-alone quality—kinda like Mariah Carey's smoker's rasp—and part of why she can still make music now that feels so "true."
MICHAEL: Although I do still remember getting Brandy's debut album on cassette tape along with Shaquille O'Neal's Shaq Fu: Da Return for Christmas, I, too, was more of a Monica fan than a Brandy one. I didn't really come to appreciate Brandy until she started lying about being married and singing about her party habits when there's a full moon.
However, I definitely still think Monica is the better singer. I mean, she was able to give credible Whitney covers as far back as 1998. Actually, let's have a moment of silence for Whitney Houston because I will never, ever forget her going up to Monica while performing and starting to sing, "Monica, I know you can shoop." Monica shooped in a way that Brandy could never, ever shoop, and still can't shoop.
I don't want to take anything away from Brandy because I enjoyed Two Eleven when it came out, but I think people often forget how gifted a singer Monica is, and honestly, may not have peaked as much as Brandy did in terms of mainstream. But as a recording artist, Monica hasn't really struggled as much in her adulthood as Brandy has. A lot of that has to do with Monica just having this kind of classic voice that will always want to be heard if given the right song. After The Storm did well, and though there have been some mishaps—namely 2012's New Life album—Monica's always good for a few (urban) radio hits. Other than "Put It Down," name the last time you really heard Brandy on the radio like that?
My only thing about Monica is that she forfeited the "I'll slap the shit out of you" brand of soul music to people like K. Michelle and Keyshia Cole. Monica's the one who should be singing about pistol-whipping sideline chicks right now. You started that with, "Kick down the doors and smack ya chick."
JUDNICK: I definitely also preferred Monica "Arm Band on My Tribal Tat, Jesus Piece on the Thigh" Brown for her inner bird.
I also thought about this for Brandy, realizing that she just had so much more going on but she was hood as hell, too. Shall I mention "Sadiddy," the song where she explicitly states that you could get the hands? It's clear their label machines knew this since their big pop duet was a song where they fought over Mekhi Phifer, a pretty irresponsible JAM that exploited how much teen girls are taught to compete for men.
It's crazy how many WOC pop stars had to change their personalities to fit the white norms when they were champion, shit-talking badgyals behind closed doors. Look at all those secret marriages! Brandy had a TV show, and they were trying to make her pop, brand-wise, but the drama that came later on only proved you can only be who you are. She dated dude from ONYX on the show and still has one of the best Murda Ma$e features of all time. Sure, I don’t really hear her on the radio, but Brandy is still putting out solid work whereas Monica's change of attitude has taken a huge light out of her music.
Despite the difference in their vocal talent, one of the reasons I still enjoy Brandy is that the actual music has aged well. Many #deepbrandyalbumcuts could be singles today—songs she did with Timbo that would fit in with the electro-touched sound of all radio music today. I never felt like Monica evolved that much, specifically because she knows she has such a pure voice. She's what I think of as a ballad singer, which is simply my least favorite thing. Brandy always had a sound that was one-of-one and weird.
Monica, get back in the studio with Kanye and Missy!
MICHAEL: I'll give you that Monica has not necessarily evolved sonically or overall. She will always be "Miss Thang" even as she goes on to fulfill her destiny as the next R&B star turned Atlanta pastor (shout out to Pebbles). Brandy, however, tends to waver. She was a decent rapper but got spooked at some of the reactions and then stopped. Although Afrodisiac was more or less ahead of its time, she distanced herself from the project after it tanked. I feel like that's part of the reason why Brandy continues to struggle finding new footing in the 2010s and Monica is always just a single a way.
JUDNICK: Brandy has always seemed uncertain in the media/public eye, which is funny when I think about how straightforward and confident she sounds in her music. She is way more interesting, but with every album I never know what to expect. On one hand that's great because it's ever-evolving, however I'm never actively checking for it because I don't actually know what is coming. She is, as you said, not really loyal to her strengths, but everything does seem more calculated.
They’re two sides of the same coin, and I think it plays so well into how we are redefining all sorts of black music right now. For a long time we had strict standards on what was acceptable as a genre and heavily rewarded those who stuck close to those principles. In the time of the Internet we find so many different interpretations of the same sound (not to mention a changing of the vanguard), and I think everyone is just starting to see the value in that.
I still don't count Brandy out, though. If she had the ear for those gems back then, she couldn't possibly have lost it. Maybe her other priorities are more important, but I really hope Brandy continues and maybe even gives rap another chance.
MICHAEL: I am with an artist progressing—but within reason. You were right (earlier) about Monica needing to go back to Missy and Kanye. I'd also like to add Dallas Austin to the mix. Maybe even Rodney Jerkins. If Brandy won't use him, perhaps Monica should. They had great chemistry on "Down 4 Whatever."
I liked Monica's "Still Standing," but I think those Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox ballads no longer serve her well. See "New Life."
As for Brandy, I don't even feel like she tried after her second single didn't catch on.
I still argue Monica's had better luck overall with her adult-aged albums commercially, but they both lack in some ways. Monica could stand to be more daring in terms of sound a la Brandy, but by that same token, Brandy could learn to be more confident.
I don't know, I'm wavering again. Monica isn't the most innovative, but she has so many good projects under her belt. I'll give catalog honors to Brandy, but when they are in their 60s and I'm official old head status, I would rather see Monica in concert by then. That voice will still be the bigger in the room.
JUDNICK: Their storylines are pretty much tied forever at this point, and they still do complement each other very well. Same audience, same draw. I will also pay to see that show, but if I had to pick between the two it might be Brandy just because I would dance more at her show. If I'm going to pay to sit, I can go to the opera.
MICHAEL: By 60, Monica will likely be doing just gospel music and speaking against the beauty of songs like "Sideline Ho," so no thanks.
Brandy, call Timbaland. If he blocked your number, try Pharrell. If not Pharrell, try Danja and DJ Mustard. Give me more Full Moon. You can do it.