One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Destiny’s Child or TLC? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer will try to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
Have you rewatched “The Boy Is Mine” music video lately and reveled in its ’90s-ness? Brandy and Monica are using CRT televisions linked by magic, through which each controls what appears on the other singer’s screen — Brandy wants to watch Jerry Springer, while Monica is trying to watch American Bandstand or Perry Mason or some other old black-and-white show. I can’t tell. The titular “Boy” is Mekhi Phifer, he of great but nebulous ’90s fame. Brandy uses a corded phone to talk to Phifer and Monica.
“The Boy Is Mine” is a beautiful time capsule — for its now-outdated video, its signature silky-beat-plus-breathy-vocals ’90s R&B sound, and the performances of not one but two leading women of the genre. Brandy and superproducer Darkchild originally wrote the song as a solo joint, but they decided the track would work better as a duet. She called up Monica, the other ascendant teen R&B star of the moment, whom the press had already deemed her rival. The result was one of the biggest hits of the ’90s and, today, the most-streamed song either artist has on Spotify. But there’s much more to these two singers arguing over Mekhi Phifer (whom they both dump at the end of the video). Here’s a look at how the rest of their catalogs hold up.
Here’s the thing about classic Brandy: For being an R&B singer who rose in the shadow of totemic, bleeding-heart releases by Boyz II Men and fairy godmother Whitney Houston, her music is not exactly triumphant. On 1994’s Brandy, she is, at best, nervously enamored of a guy who may or may not like her back on songs like “I Wanna Be Down” and “Baby.” The most secure relationship in her life is with baby brother Ray-J, who gets an enthusiastic endorsement in “Best Friend” (a 13-year-old Ray-J having a song dedicated to him on a multiplatinum album explains a lot about his subsequent exploits). These are the songs that best articulate what it feels like to be an anxiety-ridden teenager, and they’re also some of the album’s most-streamed songs. The adult-contemporary ballads that try to show off Brandy’s vocal range feel a bit listless by comparison, and largely haven’t caught on with the Spotify audience.
The ballads on 1998’s Never Say Never are a different story. Simultaneously more restrained and emotionally resonant, the album has some of her most depressing and powerful music. Instead of being driven by sentimental piano chords, “Have You Ever” uses Brandy’s agonizing harmonies as its main instruments in a tale of unrequited love. “Almost Doesn’t Count” takes an acoustic guitar lick, usually a tool to brighten up an R&B jam, and makes it the driving force of a bitter breakup song (bitter in the sad, ambiguous, what-is-the-meaning-of-any-of-this way, not the cathartic, you-sure-showed-him “Irreplaceable” way). These are the two most-streamed songs on the album after “The Boy Is Mine,” for good reason.
After her second album, Brandy’s output gets streaky. The title track for 2002’s Full Moon, which wipes away the sad-sack baggage of Never Say Never with sultry confidence, is one of her all-time best performances. (It has only 1.6 million spins! Fix this, y’all.) But overall the album has a lot of overproduced tracks trying very hard to sound post-Y2K, along with some forgettable ballads. Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope and TLC’s FanMail did the tech-R&B thing earlier, and better. 2004’s Afrodisiac enlists Timbaland at the peak of his pop-deconstruction powers to inject new life in the Brandy formula, and even gifts us with a delightfully corny Kanye verse from the Pink Polo era (“When we met you was a V like Madonna, man”). But 2008’s Human is a made-for-radio misfire that sullies Brandy’s beautiful harmonies with Auto-Tune. However, it did produce one of her most-streamed songs, the generically uplifting “Right Here,” which is just further proof that we may never fully recover from the sonic influence of the Black Eyed Peas. 2012’s Two Eleven is more adept at mixing Brandy’s somber R&B roots with the dance-floor beats that a contemporary audience demands. All in all, though, I’d still just rather listen to “Have You Ever” on repeat and cry into the nearest pillow.
Monica was 14 years old when Miss Thang dropped in 1995. If Brandy (age 15 when Brandy was released) sounds perpetually anxious in most of her adolescent work, Monica is overflowing with swagger. The first song on the album is about how fly, mature, and confident she is, earning her the titular nickname. But the true Brandy-Monica divide is illustrated by “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days),” which is up there with Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” as an early example of the explosive power of converging hip-hop and R&B stylings. The song, which advises clingy boyfriends to give their girls some much-needed space, is the tonal opposite of Brandy’s dirges about unrequited love and failed relationships. Early Monica is for the dance floor; early Brandy is for the lonely ride home.
Miss Thang was youthfully cutting-edge, but a lot of Monica’s best work revels in the pleasant pang of nostalgia. In the middle of trying to out-Brandy Brandy on her most traditional R&B record, 1998’s The Boy Is Mine, she slipped in a retro cover of Dorothy Moore’s R&B version of “Misty Blue.” Monica and frequent collaborator Missy Elliott flipped Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You” four years before Kanye and Pete Rock did on “The Joy” (“I’m the Gladys you the Pip,” Monica raps on “A Dozen Roses (You Remind Me)”). 2010’s “Everything to Me” sounds like a Patti LaBelle single transported 30 years into the future. As she’s aged, Monica has largely skirted the problem of sounding out of her depth among younger artists by drawing from a different well of inspiration. It makes for a discography that’s full of a lot of clever surprises, even if it’s not tearing up the Spotify charts.
But sometimes that mind-set does help her draw in the kids. 2003’s “So Gone,” which arrived when the merging of hip-hop and R&B had become standard, still manages to stand out thanks to its syrupy sample of the Whispers’ “You Are Number One.” “So Gone” found new life last year as a social-media-fueled freestyle challenge that roped in celebrities like Kevin Hart and Chance the Rapper. Streams of the song more than doubled on Spotify, and it’s now her second-most-streamed track. The best #SoGoneChallenge freestyle was, of course, by Monica herself.
Fourteen years after their first collaboration, Brandy and Monica teamed up for another duet, 2012’s “It All Belongs to Me.” The song is more bombastic than their first track, and it’s more competitive — they both get a brief ad-libbed solo to show off their runs, essentially daring their fans to compare notes. But the song made only a mild dent on the charts and has fewer than 2 million streams on Spotify. Judging by the resilient popularity of “The Boy Is Mine” and the continued Instagram sniping between their fan bases, listeners prefer these divas at odds rather than playing nice.