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.
At one point, singing a Diane Warren song meant that you were serious. That has changed, though Diane Warren hasn’t stopped writing songs or anything. These days, she seems to get nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar every single year, usually by writing a ballad for some movie that nobody’s ever heard of. (This year, the courtesy Diane Warren nomination was for a song that she wrote for Four Good Days, which is apparently a film where Mila Kunis plays an addict who has to go live with her mother Glenn Close. Nobody on Earth has ever watched this movie.) Warren has 13 nominations, and she’s never won. We’re long past the era when a Diane Warren song represented a kind of pop-chart cheat code.
Between 1987 and 1999, Diane Warren wrote nine different songs that reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Those songs, almost all ballads, had a flattening effect. It didn’t matter if Warren was writing for Milli Vanilli or Aerosmith; her songs would always bring the same sort of sentimental grandeur that radio ate up. Many of Warren’s hits were collaborations with David Foster, the adult-contempo overlord producer who had his name on eight different chart-toppers. Those two really had their hands in the primordial gloop of pop balladry for a while there. At some point, though, the world changed, and people got into different styles of gloop.
Together and apart, Diane Warren and David Foster were responsible for some good songs; I’m not going to sit here and front on “Un-Break My Heart.” But Warren and Foster did not exactly bring a lot of excitement to the pop charts. I truly don’t miss their whole brand of vague, platitudinous slow-dance fare, and when the zeitgeist moved on, I was entirely cool with that. So it brings me no small satisfaction to report that “Have You Ever?,” the second and final chart-topper from the teenage R&B phenom Brandy, is the last time that this column will have to grapple with the intertwined legacies of Diane Warren and David Foster, barring some kind of miraculous and implausible comeback.
Brandy Norwood was serious. In the late ’90s, Brandy flirted with America’s-sweetheart status. In 1997, she was Kobe Bryant’s prom date. “The Boy Is Mine,” Brandy’s blockbuster duet with Monica, topped the charts for the entire summer of 1998 and set up a weird little pro-wrestling feud that kept running for decades. At the same time, Brandy was the star of Moesha, the biggest hit on the largely hit-free UPN network. In the fall of ’98, Brandy also got in on the whole self-aware teen-slasher boomlet, starring in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, her character even surviving. The movie was bad, but it made money.
With her sophomore album Never Say Never, Brandy and ascendant producer Rodney Jerkins got into the sleek textures and futuristic time-warp drum-programming of R&B’s newest wave. Brandy took an active role in the album’s development, co-writing and co-producing most of the songs. But Brandy also hedged her bets, loading the album’s second half up with conservative ballads and working with David Foster on bullshit like a cover of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” One of those safe choices made it all the way to #1 early in 1999.
It didn’t have to be that way. The second single from Never Say Never was “Top Of The World,” a breezy and streamlined team-up with Mase, who briefly dated Brandy right around then. I remember “Top Of The World” as a genuine hit that was all over the place that fall, but my experience was not universal. “Top Of The World” only made it to #44 on the Billboard Radio Songs chart. Maybe the song’s lack of traction on pop radio was the reason that it never officially came out as a single, which meant that it never made the Hot 100.
“Have You Ever?” was a different story. Diane Warren wrote “Have You Ever?” on Christmas Day, presumably in 1997, and she recorded her own demo for the song. Brandy liked the demo, and the song became one of the three Never Say Never tracks that David Foster produced. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Foster sounds a little full of himself when he talks about what a good job he did with the song: “I love the feel of it; there’s nothing on there that’s not necessary and nothing on there that doesn’t add to it. It was one of the most perfect tracks I’ve ever done.” Sure, buddy.
By the corroded standards of David Foster productions, usually so stuffed with orchestral crescendos and smooth-jazz sax-tootles and whatever else, “Have You Ever?” really is pretty spare. Foster had evidently absorbed at least a little bit of the spaciousness that was coming to define commercial R&B, or maybe he just found himself in a relatively ’80s zone that day, putting the right level of echo on his drum-machine cracks. There’s some open space in the song, and veteran session guitarist Michael Thompson, who Foster singles out for praise in the Bronson book, does some nice click-squelch accents throughout. Foster also pulls the trick of opening the song with the chorus, sung a cappella, and I like that. But “Have You Ever?” doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of life to it. Instead, it unfurls with the leaden assurance of so many similar ballads. By 1999, that kind of thing already sounded like a throwback.
Diane Warren’s “Have You Ever?” lyrics concern a familiar scenario. Brandy’s narrator wants to know whether you, the listener, have any experience with unrequited love: “Have you ever searched for words to get you in their heart?/ But you don’t know what to say, and you don’t know where to start?” On the bridge, that narrator makes it clear that she’s not asking a rhetorical question. Instead, this is all her way of confessing big feelings: “What do I gotta do to get you in my arms, baby?/ What do I gotta say to get to your heart?” We never get a resolution to that question, and we shouldn’t get a resolution. The song gains effectiveness by leaving those questions hanging in the air.
Brandy sings her own backup vocals on “Have You Ever?,” and I think I like her backups better than her lead. In the Bronson book, Foster says that he wanted to get the same backup singer that Brandy used on “Sittin’ Up In My Room,” her #2 hit from 1996, and that he was shocked when he learned that the backup singer was Brandy herself. (“Sittin’ Up In My Room” is an 8.) On “Have You Ever?,” Brandy’s backup vocals have a nice pillowy effect. With her lead, she goes the pleading-through-melisma route. Her voice is appealingly vulnerable, but all of its theatrics are rote and predictable. We know how the one big money-note will sound long before she actually sings it.
There’s nothing wrong with “How You Ever?” It’s a perfectly serviceable piece of pop craftsmanship, and it at least attempts to express a tangible emotion. But I find the whole thing hollow and programmatic. There’s no life to the song, no energy. Brandy was never exactly a challenging artist, but she sounds a whole lot more engaged with some of the other songs from her album. In the Bronson book, Brandy praises David Foster’s ability to draw big notes out of her, like he’s less creative professional and more vocal coach. She also says, “Diane Warren is so funny. She has this little bird she carries on her shoulder all the time, and she’s always talking back and forth to the bird.” This whole Jafar-and-Iago tableau just further proves my theory that Diane Warren the person is a whole lot more interesting than Diane Warren the songwriter.
Brandy released the “Have You Ever?” single in October 1998, and the song steadily gained steam for a couple of months. In January 1999, Brandy co-hosted the American Music Awards with fellow teen-sitcom star Melissa Joan Hart. During the show, Brandy sang “Have You Ever?,” and the song reached #1 later that week. “Have You Ever?” was actually the first #1 hit in a while that hadn’t been sold as a discounted single, and it was never the biggest-selling song on the charts, but radio made up for that shortfall. “Have You Ever?” got play on R&B and adult-contemporary stations as well as pop ones, and that’s exactly what it was supposed to do.
By the time “Have You Ever?” reached #1, the Never Say Never album was already triple platinum, and it would go on to sell another two million copies in the US. Brandy followed “Have You Ever?” with “Almost Doesn’t Count” — another ballad, but one that was more in tune with the skittery R&B of the day. That one peaked at #16. Later in 1999, Brandy played Diana Ross’ daughter in the TV movie Double Platinum, and she also performed on VH1’s second Divas Live special, where she sang “Have You Ever?” again.
Brandy, who was presumably busy doing Moesha stuff, didn’t follow up Never Say Never until 2002, the year after the show’s run ended on an unresolved cliffhanger. Her third album Full Moon went platinum, and the funky and off-kilter lead single “What About Us?” peaked at #7. (It’s a 7.) For 2004’s Afrodisiac, Brandy finally got to work with Timbaland, the producer she’d wanted for Never Say Never. Afrodisiac is a good album, but it stalled out at gold, and its lead single, the Kanye West collaboration “Talk About Our Love,” only made it to #36. (Timbaland and Kanye West will both appear in this column in time.)
Brandy also became a mom in the early ’00s, giving birth to a daughter with her longtime boyfriend and frequent collaborator, the producer Robert “Big Bert” Smith (not the guy from the Cure). Shortly thereafter, Brandy left Atlantic and she’s been bouncing from label to label ever since. She kept acting, popping up occasionally on TV shows, and she was also one of the judges on the first season of America’s Got Talent in 2006. Her time on that show ended after a deadly car accident at the end of 2006. Driving on the 405 on Los Angeles, Brandy rear-ended another car, and its driver, a 38-year-old woman, was killed. Brandy was never charged with a crime, but she settled multiple wrongful-death lawsuits with the woman’s family.
Brandy’s career is still going. She’s touring and recording, and she released an album called B7 two years ago. But she hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2012, when her Chris Brown collaboration “Put It Down” peaked at #65. Brandy’s still acting, too. She’s been on a bunch of cancelled TV shows and in the Tyler Perry movie Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor. She starred in Chicago on Broadway for a little while. Last year, she was a mentor on The Voice, and she also starred alongside Eve on Queens, an ABC drama that got cancelled last month, when its first season ended. Earlier this year, there was a whole internet storyline about Jack Harlow, a man who will eventually appear in this column, being insufficiently familiar with Brandy, and that led up to last night, when Brandy upstaged Harlow at the BET Awards. Brandy is still in the mix, and her name still rings bells, but she’s a long ways away from the top of the pop charts.
Brandy turned 20 a few weeks after “Have You Ever?” reached #1. Just like Diane Warren and David Foster, Brandy will be famous forever, and she’ll keep getting work. But it’s got to be weird to peak professionally before you’re old enough to legally drink. At her best, Brandy was a ray of brightness, a relatable figure who had both music and charm that came through whether she was singing or acting. Brandy’s best hits had a real exploratory playfulness to them. “Have You Ever?” wasn’t one of those hits, but it wasn’t terrible, either.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kiana Ledé, a singer and TV actress just like Brandy, singing over a sped-up “Have You Ever?” sample on her 2020 song “Honest”:
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.