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The Boston Phoenix Teen Beat

Brandy and Monica fight it out

By Josh Kun

AUGUST 10, 1998:  It's a typical day in Total Request land on MTV, which means one thing: "The Boy Is Mine" is rolling and Brandy and Monica are verbally sparring for the rights to Mekhi Phifer. Then, right before the two former church choirgirls set aside their beef and collectively kick the shady Romeo to the loverman curb, some knucklehead from the Bronx pops up in a box in the bottom right of the screen and explains why he requested the video: "I want to see 'The Boy Is Mine' 'cause I like the way Brandy and Monica go from room to room."

Room to room? Two of the fiercest black teenage girls ever to make viable careers out of being black teenage girls are busy owning the pop cultural moment -- racing up charts, crowding magazines, dominating radio rotations -- and all you can think of is their intra-apartment mobility? What about the way they remind the media that all girls don't look like Buffy and Jennifer Love Hewitt?

That's why I would request "The Boy Is Mine," for the distinctly black curveball it throws the girl-teen invasion. You know the list: the Scream-ing scoop-necked coed, the post-feminist-before-ever-being-feminist Lilith fairy, the peace-signing Spice power ranger (remember: black is "scary"), the Dracula-drilling high-schooler, the potty-mouth Dawson tomboy. Instead, we get a sort of dueling-banjos take on black girlhood, with Brandy as the sweet and gentle good teen who politely tells Monica to step off without ruffling her braids, and Monica as the attitude-throwing snap diva who at 14 called her first album Miss Thang (Arista) and now sports reading glasses and silk pajamas.

After releasing their debuts -- Brandy in 1994, Monica in 1995 -- the two became the unidentical twins of teen R&B. Monica cultivated her all-grown-up image as an anti-bubblegum soul woman. Brandy went 100 percent niceness, the cute cotton candy to Monica's mother popcorn, who could land her own prime-time series (Moesha), get a record-setting national audience to watch a black Cinderella story, and snag a role in the cleavage horror sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

Besides squashing rumors of bad blood, the Brandy/Monica duet does little to bridge the Brandy/Monica gap: Brandy sounds as coy and groomed as ever, Monica comes out finger-pointing and head-bobbing, her voice running up and down the register with a sharp chip on its shoulder. That the song conveniently shows up on each of their new albums -- Brandy's Never Say Never (Atlantic) and Monica's The Boy Is Mine (Arista) -- only highlights how different their ideas about making under-21 music really are.

Complete with three songs by adult-contemporary schlockmeister Diane Warren, Never Say Never does everything but sit up and beg for a Grammy nomination. Gone are the good old Brandy days of smiling pep; here she mostly just whispers and gets sad and sounds bored. And no matter how magnetic her charm (and it is hard not to like her), track after track of being forgiving, kind, and passively heartsick does not make for slamming R&B. It's just not that much fun to hear anyone earnestly promise, "I will always tell the truth." And after Brandy's long wait for Mr. Right is over, all the emotion and sensuality she can muster is "You make me happy." No wonder the cover is Bryan Adams's "Everything I Do."

On The Boy Is Mine, Monica makes an even bigger mistake by covering Richard Marx, but she atones for that by ripping through a version of Dorothy Moore's slow-jam staple "Misty Blue," the same cover Mary J. Blige belts on The Tour. Monica is no Mary J., but at least The Boy Is Mine benefits from her influence (more than from, say, Whitney's or Toni's). When Monica's at her best, she warbles and snarls and risks off-key slips -- whatever it takes to deliver a lyric and sound as if she meant it.

The stabbing strings of "Street Symphony" and the crisp rhythmic bristle of "Ring da Bell" map the terrain straight out of the gate: Monica is a soul slinger schooled in hip-hop and "Dirty South" R&B. She rides beats better than she rides arrangements, and she does just fine next to guests Jermaine Dupri ("First Night") and Outkast ("Gone Be Fine"). And like "sometimes I'm goody, goody, right now I'm naughty naughty" Aaliyah, she knows better than to fall into good-girl drudgery. She can tease ("I wanna get down, but not on the first night") and spit fire ("You say you love me, I come back with I hate you"). It's the kind of under-the-surface venom that Brandy refuses to let out in any believable way. But that's the price you pay for being young, gifted, black, a girl, prime-time, and Hollywood.

A recent issue of People featured both a profile of Monica and a review of Never Say Never that went out of its way to declare Monica the winner of the "The Boy Is Mine" battle royale. We shouldn't have to choose between Monica and Brandy. They're two sides of a coin that rarely gets tossed in public. We need them both, even if the only thing some guy remembers is how easily they move from room to room.

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