Black Music Month: ‘Full Moon’ 20 Years Later With Brandy

Black Music Month: ‘Full Moon’ 20 Years Later With Brandy

In honor of Black Music Month, Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop team will be celebrating four prestigious albums: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, Brandy’s Full Moon and the Soul Food Soundtrack. For the third installment of the series, Billboard spoke with Grammy-winning R&B superstar Brandy on the influence and cutting-edge production of her third studio album Full Moon, which has been regarded as the blueprint of R&B.

If Never Say Never was the album that gave Brandy an international breakthrough and helped her maximize her pop crossover appeal, then Full Moon was the one to cement her as an R&B trailblazer.

Brandy – whose multi-platinum sophomore album Never Say Never earned her her first Grammy and Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, both for Monica duet “The Boy is Mine”  – returned from a three-year hiatus with a groundbreaking approach to contemporary R&B, which the artist herself still can’t believe she helmed. From transforming Michael Jackson’s technique of stacking harmonies into her own to trusting producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins to push the envelope with a new electronic-influenced sound, Brandy put out a body of work that was beyond ahead of its time – and still is today, 20 years after its release.

And it surpassed her previous efforts on the Billboard charts: Full Moon debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, compared to Never Say Never’s No. 3 peak, and earned Brandy her first No. 1 album on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart on March 23, 2002. Full Moon also became the album that heralded Brandy not only as the voice of a generation, but the “Vocal Bible,” a title that came with the pressure to be perfect. “That means I can never make a mistake,” she reflects to Billboard with a chuckle. “People would say things to me like, ‘That album taught me how to sing.’ Like what? I’m 23 years old, I’m not thinking I’m teaching people how to sing. That’s insane. I’m still learning how to sing!”

As part of our Black Music Month series, Billboard celebrated the 20-year anniversary of Full Moon with Brandy, discussing her favorite memories of making the album, new “Vocal Bible” nickname and the album’s impact on R&B today.

What do you remember most about recording Full Moon?

I just remember feeling so excited because I was so ready to record. I just had all of this emotion pent up inside of me. I was also excited to hear where I knew the sound was going to progress to sonically. And I love recording in Miami. We recorded at the legendary Hit Factory; I’ve done some of my best work there. And, of course, Rodney Jerkins, LaShawn Daniels, Fred Jerkins, that whole Darkchild team were also working with Michael Jackson in that same complex — like, he was in the next room. So it was a very, very magical time.

Full Moon was an album that I knew I needed to step up my game. I knew I needed to come out of my comfort zone and sing completely out of my range. I was squeezing and doing all kind of stuff to hit the notes, and really find the different emotions that made this album so different than my previous albums.

You had just come off a three-year hiatus following the release of Never Say Never, and your TV show Moesha had just wrapped its sixth and final season. Going into the making of Full Moon, what headspace were you in?

I was excited to get back to the music because music is my first love. Of course, I love acting, and I was really sad when Moesha ended — and how it ended, because I know a lot of the fans were left basically with a cliffhanger. But I was really ready to get back to my music. I had been having conversations with the team, and I was working with Mike City, who did the title track for Full Moon. It was calling me – that’s what normally happens when I’m ready to do music. It kind of tugs at me, it haunts me. So I was happy. It was sort of like an escape because of everything else that happened before. I wanted to go in with a clear mind and be ready to follow that creative spark that we all felt.

You started becoming known as the “Vocal Bible” because of this album, and how you pushed the boundaries of your voice on it. A lot of your collaborators, from Darkchild to Mike City, previously told Billboard about how incredible it was to witness you using your voice as an instrument by stacking harmonies. What brought that out of you? 

I’ve always loved a cappella music. I grew up in an a cappella church, so that’s where I learned a lot of the harmonies and holding my notes, even blending with people that were not singers. I learned so much working with my dad, and then he bought me a 4-track. I learned how to stack my voice that way. On the first album, I stacked my voice, but I had to do them with other singers. Not that that was an issue, but my dream was to see what I would sound like in the studio just stacking myself.

When I had an opportunity to work with Quincy Jones when I was younger, he told my dad – and I thought my dad wasn’t telling me the truth at the time – “Brandy has something that Michael Jackson has. She can stack her voice and it’ll sound like one person, like it can kind of trick computers.” And I’m like, “Dad, he did not say that! Really? Quincy Jones said that?” I took that in, and I was ready.

For the second album, Rodney, LaShawn and the guys were open to me trying to do certain things with my voice. They already knew how I wanted to approach music on Never Say Never. But then on Full Moon, it was like freedom. [Rodney] says, “Do you want to be the greatest?” And I’m like, “The greatest? That’s a lot.” [He said,] “Do you want to be the greatest version of yourself?” I said, “Yes, the greatest version.” So he told me, “This is how you can make what you do greater.” He gave me the Michael codes, like what Michael did. It took me back to what Quincy said about my voice to my dad. And he told me Michael’s codes, and how he stacked his voice and what he did. And I borrowed that and I just took it and did my own thing with it.

It makes me think about another darling R&B singer and influential hit-making producer combo: Aaliyah and Timbaland.

Oh my god, yes. They were our biggest inspirations. Rodney will tell you that Timbaland is one of his favorite producers. I will tell you the same thing. Aaliyah, her tone, and she stacked vocals, too. She was so amazing. Her music still today is timeless. There’s a song on Full Moon, it’s called “Anybody,” and it’s like an Aaliyah song. We loved Timbaland and Aaliyah, and we loved Missy [Elliott] and Timbaland. We just loved how they did what they were guided to do. And I was like, “We gotta do that.” So she’s a big inspiration, and Timbaland is a big influence on my music, from Never Say Never and on Full Moon.

That glitchy electronic sound that’s heavily embedded in the DNA of Full Moon was so ahead of its time. When Darkchild was helming this cutting-edge production, how did you feel about going in that direction?

With me, he knew that he could try things. I wanted to try different things. Everything that he said was like law. I wanted to try it, because he thought that it was gonna be good. And I’m like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then I would do things with my voice and with the mic and with the effects, learning how to use the effects and not let the effects use me. He could never be in the room because I was so afraid to sing in front of Rodney. I was so intimidated by him, I just looked up to him so much.

But LaShawn Daniels was the one who I was able to really connect with, and do the kind of vocals that sounded like they were ahead of its time — like stacking my leads and coming up with different tones that I try to play around with. My voice literally became an instrument, and that was the most fun for me, because it challenged me to try and do different things and make who I am unique. On my first album, I was trying to be just like Whitney [Houston] — which is not a bad thing, but I wanted to find who I was as an artist. And I was able to find it.

Are there any moments of being in the studio during the making of Full Moon that stick out to you most?

I remember the guys were playing basketball. And I was like, “I bet you I could vocal produce myself.” This is when I became a vocal producer, because LaShawn was very collaborative — like, he never just told me exactly what to do. He always wanted to see how I wanted to do it. So I was like, “What if I go in with my engineer and try to impress them while they’re outside playing basketball?” I forget what song I was doing backgrounds for, I think maybe it was “Come a Little Closer.” And I was doing all the backgrounds and when they came in and heard that, they were like, [high-pitched voice] “Oh, so you tryna vocal produce?”

The trust level just went to a whole ‘nother level. They forgot that I was also vocal producing a little bit on the Never Say Never album, too. They were like, “Wow OK, this is something that you can do. We can trust you. We wanna go play basketball.” That’s because I love singing backgrounds more than anything. I’ll take backgrounds over leads any day.

Speaking of backgrounds, you contributed some to Michael Jackson’s “Unbreakable” on his Invincible album, and his ad-libs are heard in “It’s Not Worth It.” What was it like to exchange vocals with another G.O.A.T. for each other’s albums?

Girl, I fainted when I met Michael Jackson, and I embarrassed everybody. I met him before I even started the album. I think the rule was, and it was an unwritten rule: Yes, we’re both at the Hit Factory. Yes, we’re gonna do something. But she don’t know how to act around Michael Jackson. And she’s pregnant, she’s emotional, her water could break. So I never saw him do what he did on my album, and he never saw me do what I did on his album.

But Rodney’s the middleman, LaShawn’s the middleman, so they’re coming back and telling me what Michael thinks I should do on this. I’m not allowed in any of the Invincible sessions. “And in case anything happens over here in the Full Moon sessions, you might throw her off, and we might not get her back, to do the things with the squeezing and the singing out of her range that we need to do.” So they kept me safe. Or they kept Michael safe, rather.

Oh my gosh, did Michael say anything after you fainted?  

I was with my brother and my friends and Rodney was there. I think I scared him because I literally fainted. And my brother was like, “B, get up! You’re embarrassing. Get up right now! This is Michael Jackson, and you are on the floor! Get up!” Ray J is going crazy — and he’s also losing it because Michael Jackson’s right there, too, but he can’t faint. He’s gotta keep the cool. I ruined it for everybody. And then Michael was like, “It’s okay. It’s okay. This has happened before.” Like no crap, I know it does!

What did Full Moon mean to you at the time of recording it, and looking back at your discography, what does Full Moon mean to you now? 

I can definitely say it changed my life. It changed me as a singer. I felt like I could I could reach for any star if I just put my mind to it, and if I just squeezed as tight as I could, or sang correctly from my diaphragm. I felt inspired to put my instrument to the test like nobody’s business. That’s what that album did for me: It made me want to do more of the challenging work to see what I can really do with my voice . I worked with some amazing writers — and LaShawn Daniels, God rest his soul, and Kenisha Pratt’s soul, she worked on the album as well. The songs were unbelievable.

And the fans really, really appreciated that album. I call my fans my extended family. It’s like, when they love it — and they still love it and they still yearn for it — it just lets you know that your work wasn’t in vain. And I honestly gave everything I had to give to that album. I left nothing on the table. And it’s an album that I’m super, super proud of. It’s probably an album I can never top. And I just appreciate the love that it received. It gave me this amazing, crazy title that put me in a depression for a minute, because it was so much to live up to. That album is the reason why people call me the “Vocal Bible.”

Full Moon was your way of telling the world, “Look, I’m grown. I’m not that little girl Moesha with micro braids you saw on your TV screen for years.” And during the process, you were pregnant with your daughter Sy’rai. Did you feel like you were growing up fairly quickly because you were trying to prove to the world that you were mature, or were you really experiencing the transition from teenage girl to woman at an accelerated rate?

I felt like I was doing everything at the appropriate time. When I first came out, I didn’t show any skin, I was not allowed to show my tummy. I still had my own style, but it was really about this good girl image, and being an example and growing up at the appropriate time. When I was an adult, like 22, 23, I felt like I did it gradually. I did fall in love, I did experience things that I hadn’t experienced yet when I first came out. Music is always, for me, more authentic and genuine when you can relate to it and when you’re going through some of the things that you’re singing about. Of course, you can get emotion from what you see other people go through as well because I’m an empath as well. But it’s even deeper when I’ve gone through something.

And, c’mon, I was pregnant. I was about to be somebody’s mama! But I did feel very young still, I felt like a very young mom. I was very young in my career, I still had so much more to give and so much more to go. I let the fans in on the process of me doing Full Moon and being pregnant. I felt like I owed them that — because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to really tour, so I just wanted to give them something. Because that album was very special.

So many artists who’ve come after you have credited Full Moon as the “bible” or “blueprint” of contemporary R&B. How have you seen this album influence R&B 20 years after its release?

I just feel so weird telling you, “Oh my God, of course I hear that people have love for me still.” I heard H.E.R. say to Tori Kelly once, it’s on my Instagram, “I felt like when I started listening to Brandy, I started singing better.” And this is H.E.R., she’s amazing! And Tori Kelly, Ariana Grande, these are real vocalists, and for them to pay homage in their way and to be influenced and still find their own style and make it their own, it’s just unbelievable. Wow, I’m flattered. It could bring me to tears, especially when it’s artists that are like that and they really appreciate it.

When I was doing [Full Moon], I didn’t know it was gonna do that. Even though my intentions were to make people happy, and I wanted people to love my music, I didn’t know it was gonna be 20 years later talking about Full Moon being one of the top albums on Billboard. It’s just beautiful to hear when people love you.

What do you feel the impact of Full Moon was on Black music?

I think it changed music. I think it changed R&B music. But I didn’t write all those songs, it was a team effort. It was collaborative. Again, I did not know that was what was happening. I didn’t know. It was unbelievable, the things that we were able to do. We were inspired by so many and trying to find our own way as well. “Full Moon,” the actual song, was a completely different vibe than the album, but it still worked. It still went with it, so that’s one of the reasons why I titled it Full Moon — because it stuck out, and it still represented every song on the album.

black music month

Black Music Month: ‘Full Moon’ 20 Years Later With Brandy In honor of Black Music Month, Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop team will be celebrating four prestigious albums: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, Brandy’s Full Moon and the Soul Food Soundtrack. For the third installment of the series, Billboard spoke with Grammy-winning R&B superstar…