Friday, January 6, 2012

Toni Braxton: The Records Revealed

Presently, Toni Braxton couldn't be the furthest thing from unknown. Starring alongside her four sisters on WE tv's Braxton Family Values, they've become the glamorous, but down-to-earth modern black family of the ages. Reality television's double-edge sword cuts deeply however. Often in the hectic hustle of it, sight is lost as to why the person is occupying the spotlight. For Toni Braxton, her amazing alto has made her one of the most beloved black female voices of the last 20 years. Accolades, acclaim, and healthy record sales Braxton has seen as much as the many woes that she's publicly weathered. Launching with the soul stirrer "Love Shoulda Brought You Home" in December of 1992, Braxton has refined, redefined, and reconstructed the modern R&B sound. Rarely are the rich contents of her six original long players discussed at length. Exploring the pleasures of Toni Braxton's sound is a necessary, rewarding task.

Toni Braxton
Label: LaFace/Arista
Year of Release: 1993
Singles: "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," "Another Sad Love Song," "Breathe Again," "Seven Whole Days," "You Mean the World to Me," "I Belong to You," "How Many Ways"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, L.A. Reid, Daryl Simmons, Tim & Ted, Bo & McArthur, Vassal Benford, Vincent Herbert, Toni Braxton
U.S. Sales Certification: Platinum (8x)
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#1), U.S. Pop (#1)
Synopsis: One of the cornerstone's of '90's R&B, Toni Braxton's self-titled record dealt primarily in amorous slow burners. Braxton's chocolate tones draped over the (now) classic run of hits that included the wispy "Breathe Again," the after midnight ache of "Seven Whole Days," and her anthem for women everywhere "Love Shoulda Brought You Home." A robust, almost teetering on, production showcase (see the list above) Toni Braxton did possess Braxton's first written composition in "Best Friend." Her creative control increased with each subsequent album. The sound of her debut upon retrospect proved to be too small for Braxton's broader vocal peaks to call home for too long. Toni Braxton is an innocent, but assertive touchstone for Braxton and her fans.

"Breathe Again"
Directed By: Randee St. Nicholas

Label: LaFace/Arista
Year of Release: 1996
Singles: "Let It Flow," "You're Makin' Me High," "Un-Break My Heart," "I Don't Want To/"I Love Me Some Him," "How Could An Angel Break My Heart"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, L.A. Reid, R. Kelly, David Foster, Tony Rich, Soulshock & Karlin, Keith Crouch, Diane Warren, Toni Braxton
U.S. Sales Certification: Platinum (8x)
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#1), U.S. Pop (#2)
Synopsis: Braxton upped the ante on her second record Secrets. Stylistically the record brazenly cut through sexy soul (You're Makin' Me High"), her established Quiet Storm drama ("Talking In His Sleep"), and pop concessions ("Un-Break My Heart"). To draw attention once more to "You're Makin' Me High," it pointed to a youthful spike in Braxton's sophisticated sound that gave it a classy street sensibility. Also, a specific instrument spotlighted on Secrets permanently stamped itself into Braxton's musical vibes: acoustic guitar. "I Love Me Some Him" boasted production by Danish R&B duo Soulshock & Karlin, known for their many hits in the ensuing years for Whitney Houston, Monica, Solange, and Seal to name some. Arguably, they capture the spirit of Toni Braxton best, barring Mr. Edmonds, and appeared later on her fifth LP Libra (2005). Secrets ability to relate bridged the gap between the dual sides of R&B's escapism and realism.

"You're Makin' Me High"
Directed By: Billie Woodruff

The Heat
Label: LaFace/Arista
Year of Release: 2000
Singles: "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me," "Just Be a Man About It," "Spanish Guitar," "Maybe"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Toni Braxton, Keri Lewis, Bryan Michael-Cox, Daryl Simmons, Keith Crouch, Teddy Bishop, Kevin Hicks, Jazze Phe, David Foster
U.S. Sales Certification: Platinum (2x)
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#1), U.S. Pop (#2)
Synopsis: If Secrets gave Toni Braxton her voice, then The Heat was the sound of an artist at her peak. Three years separated her second record from her third. In spite of that, Braxton made good on staking her relevance at the start of the last decade without coming off desperate. Teaming again with friend/collaborator Babyface didn't stop Braxton from expanding her production options. Among the new faces were (soon-to-be husband) Mint Condition keyboardist Keri Lewis and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. Even more impressive was Toni Braxton the songwriter, who had previously written only one song each on her first two records.

Like "You're Makin' Me High" before it, the on-the-floor sharpness of "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me" reinvented Braxton a second time over. That reinvention complimented the nova flame of the title track and the sensuous instrumental "The Art of Love." Braxton's husky tones sketched skillfully on like "Fairy Tale" and "You've Been Wrong," the latter sweetly interpolated The Stylistics gem "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)." Not as immediate as Secrets, The Heat had it own story to tell and was fine for it.

"Just Be a Man About It"
Directed By: Billie Woodruff

More Than a Woman
Label: LaFace/Arista
Year of Release: 2002
Singles: "Hit the Freeway," "A Better Man"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, The Neptunes, Toni Braxton, Keri Lewis, Tamar Braxton, Ivan Mathias, Andrea Martin, No I.D.
U.S. Sales Certification: Gold
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#5), U.S. Pop (#13)
Synopsis: Braxton's fourth album is tagged as her "decline" in every respect. The tale behind the album is larger than a simple label of failure. More Than a Woman's commercial fortunes were shortchanged due to LaFace/Arista's unwillingness to hold the record back after Braxton fell pregnant with her second son, resulting in a very public blowout. Musically, the picture is even more convoluted when faced with "Give It Back" and "Me & My Boyfriend." Both ailed from attempting to conform versus reformat popular trends in black music. "Lies, Lies, Lies" bore an overbearing influence from (then) husband/producer Keri Lewis, hence its Mint Condition knockoff stature. Once those three tracks are removed, the remaining whole of More Than a Woman ranks as Braxton's most consistent and ambitious recording yet.

The reshaping, courtesy of hip-hop production heavyweight No I.D., of Curtis Mayfield's "Love Happening" into "Let Me Show You the Way (Out)" possessed a killer instinct that Braxton nailed.The Neptunes gifted the svelte "Hit the Freeway" adding another groove to Braxton's boogie board. On the cool side, Braxton's dulcet colors adorned the techno-weeper "A Better Man" and the lovey dovey "Selfish." The centerpiece of More Than a Woman is the first and second person switching pathos of "Rock Me, Roll Me." Here Braxton is the victim and heartbreaker, selfless and narcissistic. A violin drenched coda sealed the art-soul package beautifully. More Than a Woman details Braxton's fascinating journey into her own R&B niche, a few hiccups aside.

"Hit the Freeway" w/ Loon
Directed By: Charles Infante & Dave Meyers

Label: Blackground
Year of Release: 2005
Singles: "Please," "Trippin' (That's the Way Love Works)"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Scott Storch, Soulshock & Karlin, Keri Lewis, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Rich Harrison, Bryan Michael-Cox, The Underdogs, Harvey Mason Jr.
U.S. Sales Certification: Gold
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#2), U.S. Pop (#4)
Synopsis: With the title taken from Toni Braxton's astrological sign, Libra should have been another personal endeavor. Unfortunately the record sounded more like it tried to find a way to mold Braxton to contemporary R&B in 2005. The results came off stifled ("Trippin') or excellent ("Please"), her lack of writing input was noticed. Libra did lasso Soulshock & Karlin back to the fold for seconds, and "Midnite" is a definite watermark. In fact "Midnite" evidenced that they could shoulder an entire project for Braxton. As it is, there are other notables and curiosities. The latter tip is fulfilled with the Rich Harrison showcase of "Take This Ring." The song seemed impotent in the wake of the across the board smash of Harrison and Amerie's "1 Thing" from the same year. Yet Braxton, being a Maryland native herself, handled the percussive aggression of "Take This Ring" with vocal vigor. The acoustic guitar solemnity of "Shadowless" continued the case for Braxton's affinity with that instrument. Label issues aside Braxton's commercial opportunities did brighten (see the stats above) and kept her present into her second decade.

Directed By: Chris Robinson

Label: Atlantic
Year of Release: 2010
Singles: "Yesterday," "Hands Tied," "Make My Heart," "Woman"
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Harvey Mason Jr., Vincent Herbert, Lucas Secon, David Foster, DJ Frank E., Troy Taylor, Oak, Dapo Torimiro, D'Mile, Chuck Harmony
U.S. Sales Certification: Not yet certified
U.S. Chart Positions: U.S. R&B (#1), U.S. Pop (#9)
Synopsis: After Libra, Braxton experienced a rash of setbacks in almost every area of her life. Afterwards, Braxton turned on her interpretive powers to full blast to make Pulse her confessional masterpiece. Ironically, her penmanship remained decreased here as on Libra. The difference between the albums was that the songs of Pulse were written for Braxton. Each producer worked together to connect the (varied) dots of her classic and new sounds. Absolution, understanding, and love are the hallmarks of "No Way," "Why Won't You Love Me," and "Hands Tied." "Hands Tied" specifically pulled the listener in with its stark piano entry before seguing into a organic bed of shifting guitars, drums, and keyboards that supported a mesmerizing delivery from Braxton. There are lighter songs to discover here with the black dance ferocity of "Make My Heart," the clattering "Lookin' At Me," and witty wordplay wonder of "Wardrobe." Pulse is the culmination of Toni Braxton's adaptability and awareness of her talents honed after two decades of transforming and pushing her sound.

"Make My Heart"
Directed By: Billie Woodruff

[Editor's Note: All of Toni Braxton's records are in print. For current information visit Toni Braxton Official.-QH]

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mýa's "K.I.S.S." Reinvents Modern R&B

Reinvention is a rarity in popular music today when it comes to the actual meaning of the word. There are exceptions and Mýa Harrison is an example. When major label interference caused the American release of her fourth album Liberation (2007) to collapse, Mýa took another route.

Japan favors R&B of any era and Mýa took it upon herself to sign to the indie imprint Manhattan Recordings based there. Additionally, she started her own label Planet 9 to work hand-in-hand with Manhattan Recordings. Her entrepreneurship, combined with a canny sense of artistic savvy, rendered Sugar & Spice (2008) her fifth album. Released in Japan, Mýa took her music directly to the audience she knew would receive it. Suffice to say the formula was successful enough to repeat it for her sixth album K.I.S.S. An acronym for "Keep It Sexy & Simple," Mýa distilled and retooled the dance/R&B principles that defined hits like "It's All About Me," "Case of the Ex," and "Fallen." Co-writing and collaborating alongside producers Chuck Harmony, Jeff Miyahari, Young Yonny, Carvin & Ivan, and Daisuke "D.I" Imai allowed Mýa to create one of the best popular R&B records of the last year. It's concept execution that elevates K.I.S.S. to classic status above any of her past works.

K.I.S.S. bursts with candy coated bangers and powdery ballads that are mainstream but mature. The title track, a tarty theme of empowerment, crosses back and forth between cheek and conviction. "Before U Say Goodbye" operates in the same rhythm of "K.I.S.S.," though it's keyed into higher emotional patterns.

There are funky experiments in "Alive," a bright, breezy J-Pop diamond, and the reggae-rock splash of "Rear View Mirror."
"Rear View Mirror" features long time friend Sean Paul sharing several toasts on top of Mýa's enthusiastic Janet Jackson flavored quips. The cut is spirited, genuine fun.

Mýa (further) echoes her R&B heroines on the "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"-era Whitney Houston nu-disco sheen of "Fabulous Life," the lead-off single. Retro without the copycat aftertaste, Mýa's charisma brings the aesthetic up-to-date. That modern flair undercuts the harder street sex on "Mess Up My Hair" and the computer blue swell in "Fugitive of Love" that directly follows.

K.I.S.S. Behind the Scenes

Mýa's voice up-to-this juncture was cute and capable, but now possesses more musculature on K.I.S.S. "Problem + Solution" and "Mr. Incredible" occupy reflection and sensuality without compromising either, a true mark of an accomplished vocalist. Even on the overblown adult contemporary bombast in "Love Comes, Love Goes" she is authentic, never losing sight of her goal in the vocal steering. The original version of K.I.S.S. appeared on April 20th, 2011 physically and digitally a week prior on the 13th. The physical sales were down from Sugar & Spice, managing #61 (Japan Billboard) and #72 (Japan Oricon) equally. On the independent and digital front it fared better at #8 (Japan Top Independent Albums & Singles Chart).

America and Canada received their first Mýa release since '03's Moodring on December 20th, 2011, albeit in digital form, with K.I.S.S. Removing "Runnin' Back," "Before U Say Goodbye," "Sorry," and "Alive" the U.S./Canadian edition featured other cuts in their place: "Take Him Out" (w/ Spice), "Earthquake" (w/ Trina), "Break Your Neck," "Can I," "It's My Birthday," and "Somebody Come Get This Bitch."

The U.S./Canadian tracks divide down the middle between quality and fluff. The fluff ("Earthquake") peers backwards to the narcissism that plagued Moodring (see "Why You Gotta Look So Good?") that Mýa (seemingly) left behind on Sugar & Spice and the initial pressing of K.I.S.S. 

The reworking of K.I.S.S.  is clearly a bid to make the album accessible to the American and Canadian markets, muddling the clarity Mýa has had since 2007. Instead of being bound to conventional U.S. chart constrictions, Ms. Harrison broke the rules. Exclusively courting the Japanese arena allowed Mýa to receive successes in a variety of ways. Despite the unnecessary U.S. repackaging, K.I.S.S. is Mýa's declarative statement of artistic and commercial freedom from the status quo. In R&B music today, it's an uncommon occurrence. Five stars out of five (for the Japanese pressing).-QH

[Editor's Note: The U.S./Canadian digital version of K.I.S.S. is available now on iTunes. The original, physical Japanese pressing of K.I.S.S. is available for order at CDJapan. The Yen to the American dollar is comparable and where I acquired mine. For more information on Mýa, visit Mýa Mýa Official.-QH]