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]


Rob Spiegel said...

Excellent piece as usual Q. A few personal comments- You're obviously a tremendous fan as I personally found Toni's vocal phrasing on some of the "Libra" tracks incomprehensible. Also, correct me if I'm wrong but I distinctly remember hearing the sing and seeing the video of "Love Shoulda Brought You Home" in the Summer of '92, when "Boomerang" was released. Did the song chart highest in 12/92? I know the full album wasn't out until the following summer, right?

Diva Incarnate said...

Even when she came back with the successful Man Enough, it seemed like she had vanished. And in the UK promotion kind of ceased quickly after; Spanish Guitar put me off, but I've always wanted to get the album as the reviews were very positive. Let It Flow is my favourite. I was impressed with Pulse, it was solid and the singles all delivered her vintage style without sounding dated. It was a minor comeback of sorts, I hope a new album will get her back on track. Compared to the other 90s divas, she STILL has that voice. I loved season 1 of Family Values - the 2nd season lacks a focus, but I love Tamar (and Toni is the perfect foil for her - they obviously get each other very well). I did actually buy More Than A Woman, but wrote it off as dull. I was into Neptunes productions back then: Hit The Freeway wasn't amazing, but there was a great remix of it. It was quite a shock to see the label let her plummet like that. Great write up - you simply have to delve into Secrets on its own at one point (maybe a 90s special series of diva posts!). I'm too lazy to blog these days:)

Moanerplicity said...

Her vocals are & have always been her own distinctive calling card. I'm not sure if her career decline is to be blamed on the times, the fickle public, inferior songwriting/production teams or something else. I'm a fan. Much like Anita Baker, the reality of her gift is still evident. There aren't too many artists today who can open their mouths, and instantly KNOW who they are.

& OH. BTW Q:

I chose your blog for the Liebster Blog Award! Come to my house to check it out.


QH said...

@ Moaner, I am SO flattered. Thank you!!! I don't really see Toni as having a "decline," creatively speaking. Commercial trends change, and barring a rare misstep, her work is pretty engaging. Again, thanks so much for the nomination nod, I can't even say how grateful I am!-QH

Tommy said...

Enjoyed this overview of Toni's albums.. One of those R&B artists that I go back to regularly. It's ironic that even though her career isn't as red-hot as it once was (tho those chart positions still seem quite strong), I've personally found her last two records to be some of her best work. That being said, if I were to do my own list, I'd probably switch around the ratings of "The Heat" and "Libra" in the latter's favour. There was an intimacy to much of that album that never fails to draw me in. Though, I have to say the European bonus tracks "I Hate You" and "Long Way Home" go some way in shaping my impressions.. Anyway, always glad to see some appreciation for Toni..