By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
Never Say Never
The Boy Is Mine
In the world of the teen pop superdiva, 17-year-old Monica and 19-year-old Brandy are virtually the same side of the same coin. Or in their case, a Jacuzzi full of coins. Monica is a good girl who looks like a cross between an aerobics instructor and an aerobics instructee. Brandy is a post-nymphet/just-nubile sexpot with a so-called-life as Moesha on the WB and a penchant for submissive under-singing. The former wants to be a classic soul singer, à la Diana Ross, and one day may be. The latter merely wants to run up $8,000-a-month long-distance bills from a time-share in Mexico, or so reports TV Guide.
Yet if I think about the two of them hard enough--head in my hands, face towards floor, no distractions but the sound of my heart pal-pal-palpalpitatin'--they dissolve into each other and become one. She might look like a Mandy, but to me she's Bronica. Rhymes with electronica. And, after all, Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine," currently embarking on its second month atop a fascinating, if not altogether satisfying, summer pop chart, is its own emerald isle of techno-R&B delight. Like-minded crossover material--late '80s Stock/Aitkin/Waterman productions for pop tarts like Kylie Minogue, or Janet's "Together Again,"--is all just that: crossover. They work as stylized hybrids that excavate an accessible underground. "The Boy Is Mine," by contrast, crosses the great divide between club culture and mass culture; like the two-headed diva currently making languid love to the soft expanse of my mewling heart, they are two and the same.
Producer Rodney Jerkins (Mary J. Blige, Shaquille O' Neal) divines a dark house groove, flattens it out, soaks it in strings 'n' soft pianos, and slows it down to a molasses meter. And it's as undanceable as the Aphex Twin techno it echoes. Brandy and Monica play two club whelps fighting over a Baby Daddy who's so far out of the song he couldn't tell Branda from Monicy. At times, even a discerning listener has the same problem. And the listener need not care. The story of Bronya and Candi isn't a story of people. It's a meditation on machines, and the techno-maestros who maneuver them.
We don't listen to Brandy's second record Never Say Never (Atlantic) or Monica's sophomore effort The Boy Is Mine(Arista) and wonder which diva will be around in five years. We listen for future sounds. Will the Portishead product of Monica's "Ring Da Bell" resonate in, say, a year? Will the skibbidy beats (Timbaland cribs for sure) all over both records become the most exciting sound in black pop? Is this the belated mainstreaming of drum 'n' bass? Not exactly brand new issues in pop, especially black pop. But in 1998 they're the only ones that matter. The Top 40 is all about the Walter Benjamins: A fertile electro-underground creates new sounds for immediate appropriation and reproduction the same way indie rock labels used to send bands to the majors.
Likewise, Brandy's handlers (Jerkins and Dallas Austin) tweaked her record for over a year, as they internalized Missy's sound, watered down Lil' Kim's sex, and capitalized on Moesha's success. With such expectations, the heroine herself can hardly rise to the occasion. She flounders during the handful of schlock-ballads at the end of her record, finally committing suicide on a version of Bryan Adams's "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You." It's nearly as painful as Monica's take on Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting" (where she's joined by the offensively bland R&B outfit 112). But such failings are to be expected in the playground of market-suave eclecticism.
And besides, these records don't need sense; they need singles. Both Brnndcm and Maoiya are following "Boy" with hip-hop crossovers. M's people have brought in transgenre genius Jermaine Dupri for "The First Night," (yet another perfect Timbaland rip-off) in which our teen sweetie reaches deep to sing, "I should make a move/but I won't... I wanna get down/but not the first night." It's post-Missy, mature miss. Monica, a nice girl, could paint us a picture of every move in the book and come off as a comparative Goody Two-shoes. Her first hit, 1995's "Don't Take It Personal (Just One Of Dem Days)," skipped right past simplistic teen-pop tropes to take a front-row seat in Aretha Studies 102. And The Boy Is Mine is all about acting older, right down to Monica's near-convincing attempt at a ballad re-write of Dorothy Moore's disco classic "Misty Blue" complete with Spector strings. She loves, she loses, she loves, she waits--and, we're to assume, she gets it on. Next year she'll vote.
Brandy, on other hand, wouldn't know Richard Marx from Karl Marx, and her please-sample-me singing suggests she has no need for any history that's pre-Puffy. Enter Mase, the rapper hero of Biggie's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." His mumblings on her new hit, "Top of the World" elevate her from club whelp to teen B-girl, while seemingly expending no more effort than it takes to collect royalties. It's no wonder that the bell that keeps going off in the song sounds a bit like a cash register.