The Number Ones

June 6, 1998

The Number Ones: Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”

Stayed at #1:

13 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Jerry Springer was a daytime TV staple from 1991 to 2018, but it hit some kind of cultural apex in the late ’90s. During a period when daytime talk shows seemed to be in a trashiness arms race, Jerry always won. The show covered some of the grimiest domestic situations that my teenage mind could comprehend. Chairs were thrown. Crowds erupted at every new revelation in these randos’ absurd stories. The former mayor of Cincinnati hemmed and hawed and mugged for the camera while his guests put their freakiness on full display. It was a real spectacle.

In my high school, Jerry was a constant topic of conversation; I knew some kids who taped it when they went to school. I happened to be home sick the day that Gwar appeared on Jerry, which felt like a major life event, like I’d won some mystical lottery. The kids in my high school weren’t the only ones paying attention. In 1998, the Springer producers made a whole lot of money selling Too Hot For TV videos — extra-salacious moments from the show with the cuss words and occasional boobs left in. Springer starred as a lightly fictionalized version of himself in the feature film Ringmaster. (It flopped, but it still appeared in movie theaters, which seems truly deranged today.) And in an indirect sort of way, Jerry Springer also helped inspire the teenage-superstar duet that held the #1 spot for the entire summer of 1998.

Brandy and Monica’s monster smash “The Boy Is Mine” wasn’t directly based on Jerry Springer, but the show did play a key role in the song’s creation. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, the track’s co-writer Brandy explains it: “Women do fight over men. I was watching Jerry Springer one day, and these women were fighting over one guy, and I thought it was stupid. I thought it would be a great song.” Give Brandy credit. She understood the zeitgeist of her moment. In the video for “The Boy Is Mine,” Jerry Springer plays a minor plot role, as next-door neighbors Brandy and Monica accidentally change each other’s TV channels with their remotes. This minor inconvenience foreshadows bigger problems to come.

Jerry Springer was not the only inspiration for “The Boy Is Mine,” the song where two of the reigning young R&B singers of the moment argued over which of them was in a relationship with some dude. The song’s obvious antecedent was Michael Jackson’s Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine,” which came out when both Brandy and Monica were toddlers. (“The Girl Is Mine” was the first single from Thriller, and it was also the worst song on the album. It peaked at #2, and it’s a 3.) In the Bronson book, “The Girl Is Mine” co-producer Dallas Austin says that Paris Davis, Brandy’s A&R guy, suggested that the two of them record a “Girl Is Mine”-style song. To hear Austin tell it, Davis wanted it to be Brandy and Monica because “they had been going through this thing where people thought they didn’t like each other.”

Brandy and Monica were never friends, but that didn’t mean that they were enemies. The two singers were about the same age, and they’d both come into the music business at the same time, as extremely young R&B phenoms. They were kids, but they didn’t make kids’ music. Neither of them had ever reached #1 before “The Boy Is Mine,” but both of them had gotten as far as #2. In the Bronson book, Monica addresses that whole thing: “From the time she was released and I was released, instantly people compared us, and I never understood it. They never did it with me and Aaliyah, or Brandy and Aaliyah. It was always Brandy and Monica.”

Aaliyah, who will eventually appear in this column, did debut around the same time as both Brandy and Monica, and she was around the same age. But her sound, image, and style were so different that I never even considered the idea that they might be compared. Brandy and Monica both had a breezy and approachable everygirl thing going on, so the comparisons made a little more sense, even if they came off as different kinds of everygirl. But Brandy and Monica were very different singers, and they came from very different circumstances.

Brandy Norwood was born in Mississippi, but she mostly grew up in a show-business family in Carson City, California. (When Brandy was born, the #1 song in America was Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?“) Brandy’s father was a gospel singer and choir leader who coached both Brandy and her younger brother, the future amateur-porn and reality-TV star Ray J. (Ray J’s highest-charting single, the 2007 Yung Berg collab “Sexy Can I,” peaked at #3. It’s a 3.) Brandy’s mother eventually became her manager. One of her cousins is Snoop Dogg, an artist who will eventually appear in this column.

Brandy studied singing and acting as a young kid. She performed on the talent-show circuit, and she sang some backup vocals for the kiddie-R&B boy band Immature. (Immature’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Never Lie,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) In 1993, when Brandy was 14, she signed with Atlantic. That same year, she also landed a role as one of the kids on Thea, an ABC sitcom that lasted for one season. Brandy and Thea star Thea Vidale have been bashing each other in the media ever since.

Brandy’s self-titled 1994 debut came out shortly after ABC cancelled Thea. The record is a slick, canny piece of breezy, funky R&B, and it makes good use of Brandy’s voice, which manages to be earthy and feathery at the same time. The young Brandy came from the first generation that never knew life before rap music, and she had an innate understanding of how to float over loping programmed beats. The album was a huge success. Brandy’s debut single “I Wanna Be Down” reached #6. (It’s a 7.) The slinky follow-up “Baby” did even better, peaking at #4. (It’s an 8.) Brandy ultimately launched three top-10 singles and went quadruple platinum. In 1996, Brandy landed her biggest hit yet when “Sittin’ Up In My Room,” a song that Babyface wrote and produced for the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack, got as high as #2. (It’s an 8.)

The same year that she released “Sittin’ Up In My Room,” Brandy became a proper TV star. Her role on Thea didn’t last, but when she played the title role on Moesha, a sitcom on the fledgling UPN network, something clicked. Brandy was both charming and believable as a regular kid handling regular-kid problems, and the show became UPN’s biggest hit, ultimately lasting for six seasons. Around the same time that Moesha debuted, Kobe Bryant, preparing to go straight from high school to the NBA draft, famously took Brandy to his senior prom as his date. Brandy also co-starred with her hero Whitney Houston in a 1997 TV-movie version of Cinderella. The acting, along with various soundtrack singles and attendant famous-person responsibilities, kept Brandy busy enough that she didn’t get around to making a sophomore album until 1998.

Brandy was nervous about making a second LP, and she didn’t like most of the songs that her label presented to her. Brandy wanted to work with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, the Virginia producers who were in the process of remaking R&B as psychedelic future-funk, but Missy and Tim were already working with Brandy’s fellow R&B prodigy Aaliyah. Instead, Brandy recorded 1998’s Never Say Never with one of Missy and Tim’s contemporaries.

Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, a figure who will appear in this column many times, is an Atlantic City native who grew up in the church and who worked as a sort of understudy to Teddy Riley when he was a teenager. Jerkins, only a couple of years older than Brandy, had a slick, jittery style, a more streamlined take on what Timbaland did. Brandy loved Jerkins’ work on Share My World, the 1997 sophomore album from Mary J. Blige, a singer who will appear in this column. Jerkins produced most of Never Say Never.

Originally, “The Boy Is Mine,” the first single from Never Say Never, was going to be a solo song for Brandy. You can hear that in the track. “The Boy Is Mine” doesn’t exactly offer two differing perspectives. It’s two different women singing the same thing, more or less, to each other. Brandy was one of five credited writers on “The Boy Is Mine.” She worked with Rodney Jerkins, his brother Fred Jerkins III, and fellow professionals LaShawn Daniels and Japhe Tejeda. But when she heard her solo version of the song, Brandy thought something was missing. She knew that “The Boy Is Mine” needed Monica.

Monica Denise Arnold grew up in the Atlanta neighborhood of College Park, and her family was not a show-business family. (When Monica was born, the #1 single in America was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.”) Polow Da Don, a producer whose work will eventually appear in this column, is one of her cousins, but Monica’s parents both worked at the airport — her father as a mechanic, her mother as a customer service rep. Monica grew up singing in churches with her mother, and she won talent shows around Atlanta as a kid. When she was 10, Monica became the youngest singer in a touring gospel choir. When she was 12, Dallas Austin, producer of hits like TLC’s “Creep,” heard Monica singing a Whitney Houston song a talent show and signed her to his Arista imprint Rowdy.

Monica was 14 years old when she released her 1995 debut album Miss Thang. Like Brandy, Monica was entirely comfortable singing over rap beats. Unlike Brandy, Monica had serious levels of gospel grit in her voice even at a young age. She sounded tougher than Brandy, more seasoned. She didn’t sound anything like a little kid. The sound of Miss Thang is rich and assured, and it’s wild that a 14-year-old singer was able to sound that much like what Mary J. Blige was doing at the time. Monica blew up even quicker than Brandy did. Her debut single “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One Of Dem Days)” reached #2. (It’s an 8.) Two more singles from Miss Thang went top-10, and the album went triple platinum.

Much like Brandy, Monica followed her debut album with a big soundtrack hit. For her contribution to the 1997 motion picture Space Jam, Monica went full adult-contempo, singing the Diane Warren-written ballad “For You I Will,” which reached #4. (It’s a 5.) Compared to what Monica was doing on Miss Thang, “For You I Will” was severely lacking in swagger, but it showed that Monica could do more than what she’d done on her debut. She wasn’t a TV star like Brandy, but Monica had a bright future. When Brandy put in the call for Monica to appear on “The Boy Is Mine,” the timing was great. Monica, like Brandy, was gearing up to release her second LP.

“The Boy Is Mine” wasn’t written about a real-life scenario, but it did riff on the public perception that Brandy and Monica were rivals. In the Bronson book, Monica says that this was intentional: “We took the song and brought humor to a situation that people had tried to make so serious. We thought it would be really funny to show us feuding in the video and then come together at the end because we wanted people to let go of the idea of us not liking each other — but of course, they haven’t.” We sure haven’t. Decades later, the idea of Brandy and Monica not liking each other remains a big topic of conversation in both singers’ careers.

Brandy and Monica tried recording “The Boy Is Mine” together, in the same room, but it didn’t work. Their voices clashed, and some of the people who worked on the song have said that they didn’t like being in the same room together. So they tried something else. Brandy recorded her part in California with Rodney Jerkins, and Dallas Austin recorded Monica’s parts in Atlanta, tweaking the arrangement in the process and earning himself a co-producer credit. (The other two credited producers are Rodney Jerkins and Brandy.) The song went through multiple mixes until everyone was satisfied that nobody upstaged anyone else. In the Bronson book, Austin says, “I had to make Monica Monica on it. I didn’t want it to turn into something where Monica’s full character wasn’t on it. It had to have their attitudes on it and not just be them singing a song.” It took multiple mixes before they came up with a version of “The Boy Is Mine” before all parties agreed that neither singer upstaged the other.

To its great credit, “The Boy Is Mine” does showcase the attitudes of both singers. The producers might’ve had to put the song together piecemeal, but there’s a real chemistry at work on it. The contrast between the two voices is subtle, but it’s there. Brandy is softer, and Monica is harder. The argument on the track is pretty much an “is not”/”is too” thing, and it never reaches a resolution, but that probably makes it more fun. It’s structured almost like a rap battle, with both Brandy and Monica getting chances to flex on each other. Brandy: “There’s no way that you could mistake him for your man, are you insane?” Monica: “You see, I know that you may be just a little bit jealous of me.” On the chorus, the two of them sing the same thing at each other. The line “I’m sorry that you seem to be confused” is a truly great piece of faux-nice shit-talk.

Given how the track was constructed, it’s amazing that the production on “The Boy Is Mine” is so seamless. The song is full of all these sharp, hypnotic little effects. The synth-harp that opens the song is both airy and beautiful, and the producers surround it with flighty little string riffs, funky bass-blorps, and drum-machine ripples. I love the weird stagger of the beat programming — the long, ungainly pauses followed by rat-tat-tat clusters. By the end, “The Boy Is Mine” becomes a jittery riot of sounds and voices, and it’s beautiful.

I always heard the production on “The Boy Is Mine” as an imitation of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, and I was always completely fine with that. Missy and Tim were completely reworking the way that rhythm could work in popular music, and the smartest producers were the ones attempting to play catch-up. Those advancements were what made rap and R&B radio so exciting in the late ’90s and early ’00s. “The Boy Is Mine” is an early, unformed example of that influence at work. Even in a relatively slick and mainstream iteration, that sound could be just overwhelming.

On the song “The Boy Is Mine,” Brandy and Monica’s characters never find a resolution; they’re still arguing as it fades out. The video is a different story. The video for “The Boy Is Mine” is practically part of the text of the song itself; it’s what immediately comes to mind when I think of the song. In the clip, Joseph Kahn, future director of the Fast And The Furious wannabe Torque, showed Brandy and Monica living in beautifully art-directed adjacent apartments, having identical conversations with identical groups of friends and inadvertently interfering with each other’s TV signals.

Eventually, both Brandy and Monica realize that they’re dating the same guy: Mekhi Phifer, who’d already starred in Clockers and High School High and Soul Food. (Later in 1998, Brandy and Phifer would again appear together onscreen, playing a couple in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. A song with a prominent Mekhi Phifer name-drop will eventually appear in this column.) Phifer’s character must think he’s Zack Morris, trying to date two different women even though they live right next to each other in a damn apartment building. Brandy and Monica figure out what’s going on by hearing phone conversations through the wall, and they briefly get up in each other’s faces. But the video ends with Phifer knocking on Brandy’s door and discovering that Monica is right there with her. The last shot in the clip is Phifer looking confused as they slam the door in his face. It’s good shit.

“The Boy Is Mine” caught fire in ways that nobody could’ve anticipated. I graduated from high school a couple of weeks before “The Boy Is Mine” hit #1, and it was still sitting at the top of the charts while I settled into my dorm at Syracuse. In the time that “The Boy Is Mine” was at #1, Brandy released Never Say Never, and Monica came out with her sophomore album, which she called The Boy Is Mine — a choice that feels a bit like Monica saying that the song was hers. Monica has said that Clive Davis picked the album title. If you listen to The Boy Is Mine on a streaming service today, you will note that “The Boy Is Mine” is no longer on the album. (At least once, Brandy has changed the song to “The Song Is Mine” when singing it live.) Brandy, meanwhile, sang “The Boy Is Mine” by herself on The Tonight Show, which reportedly pissed Monica off.

That September, Brandy and Monica sang “The Boy Is Mine” together onstage for the first time at the VMAs; the song had only fallen from #1 a few days earlier. At the time, there were persistent rumors that Brandy and Monica had gotten into a fight during the VMA rehearsals. The two put out a joint statement denying those rumors, but years later, they admitted it: Monica had, in fact, punched Brandy in the face backstage. During the show itself, Brandy and Monica spent most of the performance at opposite ends of the stage. A song inspired by Jerry Springer had led to some Jerry Springer shit.

Brandy and Monica might not have liked each other, but “The Boy Is Mine” served to make them even bigger stars. The big superstar-duet of 1998 was supposed to be “When You Believe,” the ballad from the Biblical cartoon epic The Prince Of Egypt where Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey finally sang together. But “When You Believe” was about as exciting as boogers drying. Part of the song’s appeal was the perception that Whitney and Mariah didn’t get along; at that same VMAs, the two of them presented an award together while wearing the same outfits and acting pissed-off at each other. The hype didn’t work. “When You Believe” peaked at #15, while two women from a younger generation, singers who were both post-Whitney and post-Mariah, reigned for an entire summer with smarter, sharper song that actually played on their perceived animosity.

Brandy and Monica will both appear in this column again, so we’re not wrapping up either of their stories here. The two of them continued to play up their feud, possibly for dramatic effect, in the years ahead. In 2012, though, they got back together to sing another duet. “It All Belongs To Me” riffed on past beef, and it missed the Hot 100 entirely. Pretty good song, though.

Brandy and Monica also reunited onstage for a 2020 Verzuz battle that drew a huge streaming audience. Kamala Harris Zoomed in for a cameo appearance, and the two singers, who hadn’t spoken in years, said lots of nice things about each other while many of the people watching attempted to decipher the awkwardness of their body language. When the Verzuz battle inevitably ended with “The Boy Is Mine,” Brandy sang it herself; Monica opted out. That VMA performance is still the only time they’ve ever sung the song together for an audience. I’m sure the whole Brandy/Monica saga will go through more twists and turns in the years ahead. No matter how they feel about each other, Brandy and Monica are tied together forever. A song like “The Boy Is Mine” can do that.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Mobb Deep’s 1999 single “It’s Mine” featured Nas atonally singing the melody from “The Boy Is Mine.” Prodigy once told me that the “It’s Mine” video cost a million dollars to shoot. Here it is:

(As lead artists, Mobb Deep’s highest-charting single is the 2002 112 collab “Hey Luv (Anything),” which peaked at #58. Mobb Deep did, however, get to #6 as guest rappers on 50 Cent’s “Outta Control” remix in 2005. That one is a 6. Nas’ highest-charting lead-artist single is 2003’s “I Can,” which peaked at #12. As a guest, Nas got as high as #5 on Missy Elliott’s “Hot Boyz” in 1999. That’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2000, UK dance producers the Stuntmasterz had an pirate-radio hit called “The Ladyboy Is Mine,” which put Brandy and Monica’s sped-up vocals from “The Boy Is Mine” over the music from Modjo’s “Lady (Hear Me Tonight).” Eventually, Warner Bros. gave “The Ladyboy Is Mine” a proper release, but they couldn’t clear the Modjo sample, so the Stuntmasterz used a Chic sample instead. The song still went top-10 in the UK. Here’s the video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s US Girls’ video for their bugged-out 2011 drone-pop cover of “The Boy Is Mine”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the UK dance producer Zomby sampling “The Boy Is Mine” on “Rendezvous” and “The Things You Do,” two different tracks that appeared back-to-back on his 2013 album With Love:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of HAIM and their opening act Lizzo covering “The Boy Is Mine” together at a 2019 show at Red Rocks:

(HAIM have never had a Hot 100 hit as lead artists, but they got to #34 when they guested on Taylor Swift’s 2020 song “No Body, No Crime.” Lizzo will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Usher’s silky, bleepy “My Way” peaked at #2 behind “The Boy Is Mine.” It’s an 8.

THE ASTERISK: While “The Boy Is Mine” sat at #1 on the Hot 100, the Goo Goo Dolls’ quasi-grunge soundtrack ballad “Iris” kicked off an astonishing 18-week run at #1 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart. “Iris” was never released as a single, and Billboard rules being what they were, “Iris” did not appear on the Hot 100 for most of that time. Billboard finally changed that maddening rule at the end of 1998, which means this is the last time that one of these columns will have an asterisk, at least unless we get into some other rule-change weirdness later on. When the change happened, “Iris” was still big enough to reach #9 on the Hot 100. If the change had happened earlier, “Iris” probably would’ve made it to #1. It’s a 4.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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