July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

In some ways, Brandy leads a life like any other single mom’s. And then, of course, there are the differences. She loves singing Barney songs with her 2-year-old daughter Sy’rai—and taking a break to play tennis with pal Serena Williams. Longing to be mistress of her kitchen, she regularly checks out recipes for macaroni and cheese and fried chicken in a favorite cookbook written by fellow diva Patti LaBelle. And after a long June day hanging out at the MTV Beach House in Lake Tahoe, where Brandy is promoting her new CD Afrodisiac, all she wants to do is plop down in front of the TV and watch…Moesha reruns? No, she’s not reliving her days as a teen TV star; the 25-year-old is glued to the NBA draft. “I love basketball,” she says. Especially since she began dating L.A. Clippers guard Quentin Richardson, 24, eight months ago. “He is a great guy for her,” says Brandy’s mother, manager and No. 1 babysitter, Sonja Norwood. “I can see the happiness in her.”

Good thing: The singer-actress from McComb, Miss., has had a bumpy three years. She secretly married music producer Robert Smith in July 2001, gave birth to their daughter a year later and had split from Smith by the time Sy’rai (Suh-RYE) turned 1. While that was happening, she put her career on hold at its peak—a risky move for a woman who had her first big hit, the triple-platinum CD Brandy, at 15 and was a TV star two years later. The hiatus was marked by “struggle” and “pain,” says Brandy. And maybe growth as well, says her mother. “She needed time off to dig deep to find out who she is,” says Norwood, 53, “and what she liked about herself.”

Brandy says motherhood suited her from the start. “It took me 13 months to let Sy’rai spend a night away from me,” she says. But marriage—or rather, marriage to Smith, who had worked on her last CD, 2001’s Full Moon—did not. “I think I was too young,” she says, adding that she mistook the comfort and security that defined their relationship for love: “I wish I had felt passion, but I didn’t.” After much agonizing, she split from Smith, who shares in the raising of Sy’rai, in 2003. “One day it just hit me,” Brandy says of her decision. “This is it. You are not in love. So either stay in it because you have a child or be brave and find the man of your dreams and marry him for real.”

Still, when she met Richardson at a charity basketball event last July, she says, she wasn’t looking: “I certainly didn’t want to date. I was through with guys.” But when Richardson introduced himself, she got all shook up. “It was the weirdest thing. I felt like I was his girl-friend the first time I met him,” she says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this? I am feeling this too quick.’ ” She turned down his repeated requests to get together—until, he notes, he stopped asking. “For a couple of months she was like, ‘Basketball players are all dogs,’ ” Richardson says. “Then after a week of me not calling her, she called me out of the blue.”

They’ve been one-on-one ever since. According to her mother, Brandy likes the fact that the Chicago native acts like a “southern boy”—down-to-earth, polite and attentive to Sy’rai. “I love her like she is my own daughter,” says Richardson. As for Brandy, “she is a very fun-loving person,” he says. “She loves to laugh and is always trying to be funny.” (Though not always successfully. “A lot of times,” admits her beau, “her jokes aren’t funny.”) Between recent trips to Jamaica and the Bahamas, they hunker down at one of their homes in L.A. and play X-Box, watch TV—she’s an American Idol junkie—and practice hoops.

With her career back in gear, Brandy frets that she has less time with Sy’rai. Part of a close-knit family (her father, Willie, 54, is the musical director at the Woodland Hills Church of Christ in L.A.; brother Ray J, 23, is a singer), she has no shortage of childcare. But it’s not the same as being home herself. “Sy’rai does something new every moment of her life,” says Brandy. “So wanting time with her and also wanting to make your dreams come true is tough.” Less tough, perhaps, is making her romantic dreams come true. When asked if she plans to marry Richardson, Brandy giggles-then asks, “Can you tell by the laugh?” Stay tuned. “I have so much more to go through as a young lady,” Brandy says. “But oh my God. I feel like I can do anything.”

Karen S. Schneider. Sean Daly in Los Angeles

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