Finally — finally! — more than 20 years since their duet “The Boy Is Mine” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for an impressive 13 weeks, Brandy, 41, and Monica, 39, decided it was time to bury the hatchet that has shadowed their legendary careers and appear together on the Instagram Live show Verzuz last night.
Their reunion on the quarantine entertainment staple that has blessed music lovers with song battles between Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, Babyface and Teddy Riley, and Johntá Austin and Ne-Yo — just to name a few — was “for the culture” and a celebration of “the love of music.”
As with everything online during the COVID-19 pandemic — and because the women haven’t been in close proximity in nearly a decade — the show got off to a bit of a clumsy start. Some fans sensed a palpable “TENSION” between the women, while others picked up on an awkwardness emanating from Brandy and chalked it up to her excitement about the battle. And let’s be real: There was a tiny bit of petty behavior, but the women made it clear at the outset that they were all about unity and friendship. Brandy spoke first, saying she was “so happy and elated that we are together.” Monica responded in kind, taking a moment to acknowledge the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death and the tumultuous year that has been 2020. She also let Brandy kick off the event, which was held in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios. And fans — more than 1 million, to be exact, including everyone from former first lady Michelle Obama to Lil’ Kim to, yes, even vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris — tuned in to see these women reconnect.
When Brandy and Monica’s Verzuz was announced on Aug. 22, fans of the singers almost immediately launched into the ladies’ discographies, drawing battle lines and making their case for which star would ultimately prevail in the end. “If Brandy plays one of the Cinderella tracks, it’s a wrap for Miss Monica on the spot!” one fan said, adding an oft-memed clip of Blac Chyna saying “Cut the cameras...deadass” for maximum effect. “Missy aint never screamed ‘New Brandy!’” another fan said, jokingly, referring to what hip-hop legend Missy Elliott excitedly wailed when announcing the arrival of a new Monica single. Elliott intervened, saying, in an emoji-laden message, “Come on y’all... Let’s CELEBRATE the fact that these two women are coming together again … Let’s Enjoy both of their catalogues because they both are Legends with a IMPACT & have made UNDENIABLE TIMELESS music.” She was quickly reassured that it was all in jest.
Why can’t we just accept that these two women are great in their own unique ways, like we do with the beloved Reginas — King and Hall — and praise them both without it being a competition?!
That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? Monica and Brandy, who have, respectively, sold a staggering 30 million and 40 million albums worldwide, have had a real on-again, off-again professional relationship, and the reason behind the static surrounding them has never been made plain. It’s an unresolved pop culture mystery, and the singers have played into its longevity just as much as fans. "The fans have no idea what really took place, what really caused the initial friction, and we vowed to keep that between us,” Monica teased in a recent interview with Entertainment Tonight. “Once I speak with her and see how much of what she wants to share can be shared, then we'll share some things with you guys.”
Brandy and Monica, who were 18 and 17 at the time, hadn’t actually met before they recorded “The Boy Is Mine” in 1997. The idea to come together was originally Brandy’s, who was hoping to quell the persistent rumors that the two teenagers loathed each other. “We're friends and we're cool and no matter what anybody says we're going to stay tight,” said Brandy in a late-’90s interview clip about the collaboration. Monica, while promoting her second studio album, The Boy Is Mine, on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee in ‘98, also seemed to suggest they were on the same page. “When we did the song together, [there] were all these misconceptions about controversy, but I think it kind of took the fun out of it for people to see we got along,” she said. Still, this act of resistance proved futile as the wildly popular pop stars’ budding relationship inevitably became frayed. Though adept at singing, the two were not at all prepared to endure the manufactured rivalry that seemingly became a real thing. Ironically, the duet won the pair a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group in 1999, a shared honor that remains the only Grammy each of them have to their name.
Though adept at singing, the two were not at all prepared to endure the manufactured rivalry that seemingly became a real thing.
As the two vied for attention from largely the same audience, they were presented with opposing images and pitted against each other. Brandy’s image was the epitome of the girl next door. And that squeaky-clean image catapulted her to mainstream success: She was a pop star, called “The Vocal Bible” by fans who know her deep cuts, and held her own while singing alongside music royalty on hit soundtracks (Waiting to Exhale, Set It Off, Cinderella). She was a TV star (Moesha) and a beauty icon (a Cover Girl with her own Barbie Doll) all before she could even legally drink. Years later, even when attempting to shed her good-girl image to show the world she had grown more mature, Brandy was candid about the costs of always presenting herself as perfect. “When I wanted to be sad or happy at 11, I could,” the singer told Cheo Hodari Coker for the July 2004 issue of Vibe. “But in this industry, you always have to be okay. So I felt like I was trapped in a happy image, where sometimes I was really fucked up. I was really sad, I was really hurt, I was really blazing. I was a human being.”
Monica, meanwhile, was presented to the public as a beautiful and talented singer who was very sure of herself — “wise beyond her years,” as Daily Press put it in 1995, when the singer was just 14 years old. “So many of us, especially women, don’t know ourselves; we let other people tell us what we need and want,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “So I’m trying to get to know myself, and to give myself a chance. That’s all I can do, you know?” She came off very guarded in interviews, offering matter-of-fact statements when asked about her relationship with Brandy. “It’s a working relationship,” Monica flatly told an interviewer for VIVA, the German music channel, right after being questioned about why she named her sophomore album The Boy Is Mine (which, c’mon, feels just a little petty considering it’s technically Brandy’s song), but apparently she just wanted to “make a bold statement.” Monica, who excelled in her own right — though she never matched Brandy in star power — also made songs for the soundtracks for The Preacher’s Wife and Space Jam and scored hits like “The First Night” and “Angel of Mine.”
Monica, who was firmly slotted into the R&B category, would suffer a slump after the commercial success of The Boy Is Mine. Still, her 2003 comeback album, After the Storm, was delayed several times before its release, eventually debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And while Brandy was facing the pressure of being more of a commodity than a person, Monica was given permission to be what she described as “sassy and more attitude-oriented.” Speaking about her mentor and producer Dallas Austin, who signed her to Rowdy Records at the age of 12 last year on The Breakfast Club, Monica said, “It couldn't have been anybody better to have signed me at that age because he treated me as his daughter. He never made me feel like, ‘If she's not selling records, she's not important.’ It was always about, ‘Look, are you okay? Is this too much? You don't have to do this. Everything about who you are is great. Don’t let them tell you different. If I’m not present to say it for you, you say it yourself.’”
Now-defunct magazines YM, Fresh!, and Right On! featured attention-grabbing headlines that alluded to “catfights” and a “rivalry” that eventually got to the two women. Though they were adamant there was no beef, looking at how often they were placed in opposition to one another, it’s easy to see how some kind of conflict was inevitable, even if rumors of actual strife were unfounded. Brandy and Monica should be commended for how hard they tried to resist falling into the trap, but they were, unfortunately, just next up in a long line of legendary stars who were forced to endure the tired rivalry trope. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston weren’t exempt. Neither were Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell nor Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I mean, if we really wanna go deep, we can throw it back to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It may be all fun and games for onlookers, but these women were simply trying to entertain us and were saddled with unbelievable pressure.
It’s harder to be cordial with each other when there’s a constant narrative being spun that There Can Only Be One. There’s real damage that’s done too. Keri Hilson, who began her career as a songwriter before becoming a singer, recently opened up to former Real Housewives of Atlanta star Claudia Jordan on her talk show, Out Loud, about how she was essentially pressured by industry executives to start a rivalry with Beyoncé. In 2009, Hilson remixed her hit “Turnin Me On,” changing not only some of the lyrics but also the title of the song. “Turnin Me Off” featured lines which some assumed were directed at her peers Beyoncé and Ciara. “You can dance, she can sing but need to move it to the left,” Hilson sings along with the line “go sit down and have babies.” She was, unfortunately, never able to live the incident down because the Hive never lets anything slide. But Hilson said she was essentially powerless because she was so young in her career and felt pressured to do as she was told. “It just soiled my whole dream,” she said.
It’s harder to be cordial with each other when there’s a constant narrative being spun that There Can Only Be One.
With this kind of fabricated antagonism still prevalent in the music industry today, it’s no wonder the beef with Monica and Brandy has become the stuff of legend. While Brandy and Monica reunited once before in 2012 for another duet called “It All Belongs to Me,” the reconciliation was short-lived as old tensions began to take hold once more. In 2016, Brandy was dismissive when asked if she would participate in the #SoGoneChallenge, where fans remixed Monica and Missy Elliott’s 2003 song of the same name with their own original freestyle. “Chile bye” was Brandy’s response.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Monica celebrated Whitney Houston’s birthday with an Instagram caption that, in part, said, “You will forever be the greatest …. You will forever be missed.” Brandy later posted her own tribute and thanked Houston for “trusting” her “with the torch!!!” Fans of Monica purportedly began teasing Brandy for making a self-indulgent post about Houston that, inevitably, perpetuated the idea of their rift. “Monica needs to really check her evil ass fans," Brandy said in an Instagram caption at the time. "It's so much stuff I can post about the hateful things they say to me... but I will never have time for that. Always thinking something is about her. It's not!!!!” For some time, the rivalry has felt one-sided.
Brandy, as recently as 2018, performed “The Boy Is Mine” solo at Essence Fest, slightly changing the ending by singing “the song is mine,” an apparent dig at Monica. Though Monica hasn’t been completely innocent in the feud — Dallas Austin even went so far as to say Monica punched Brandy in the face prior to their 1998 VMA performance — she has since only praised Brandy in interviews. “I would work with her again. It's never been an easy situation, but the reason that I would do it is because we are from a special elite group,” Monica said on The Real in 2016. “It was her, Aaliyah, and myself. It was a very special time where each of us were individuals, we did our own thing, and we all made our own mark.”
On Monday night, with over a million people watching, Brandy and Monica seemed, for the most part, to leave the past in the past. Monica addressed their long-standing feud but didn’t divulge any shocking details, only saying that the consistency at which they were discussed in the press during the heyday of their careers “led to it being more difficult” for the two women to connect. “There was a time when I was kicking in doors and smacking chicks," Monica said, right before introducing her song “So Gone.”
"You sure was," Brandy responded, who — in an attempt to make a joke — added that she was on the receiving end of Monica's wrath. Brandy quickly added that things were in the past while Monica, attempting to keep things light, simply said, “What had happened was, we had a disagreement” and left it at that. Later in the night, Brandy said, “I’m having so much fun. Can we do a Verzuz part two?” while Monica let the singer have the floor for a moment to talk about her newfound freedom as an independent artist and the release of her latest studio album, B7. Brandy even dedicated her moving ballad “Have You Ever” to Monica. The night ended with an embrace, after the two played “The Boy Is Mine,” and the former rivals exited stage right.
Brandy and Monica are two very different women, two very different artists, who happen to make phenomenal music — as a duo — and as solo artists. Though there were perceived jabs and playfully shady moments, the one thing that’s been made crystal clear from their Verzuz appearance is that there has always been, and always will be, room for the both of them to thrive.●