Monday, October 24, 2005

Women we love: Toni Braxton

A lot of people come up to me and ask, "Hey, MKD, if you could only listen to one rhythm and blues-style artist for the rest of your life, who would it be?" Well, there's an answer to that. "Listen," I reply to the people who ask me this. "You can keep your R. Kellys and Mariahs and Jill Scotts, even your Eric Benets, Musiqs, and Janet Jacksons. For me, there's only one." And that one is Toni Braxton.

Why is Toni Braxton the one? Let me count the ways. Her voice is husky and low, but with a great range. She peppers her music with "oohs" and "yeahs." The love she sings about is mature, passionate, angry, unrequited. She whoops. Her songs are written intelligently, with irony and confidence. Her songs are well-produced, and unlike many other singers, she is not afraid to ride the instrumentals for a minute or two. Her albums are interesting, not formulaic, yet her music fits squarely into a consistent, larger ouevre. She is continually having her heart broken.

She has a new album out, "Libra," and it's awesome. Her last album was a bit of a disappointment, but this album has the smoothness, the pain, the beauty, the sex appeal that are her hallmarks. It helped me get through last week, which was characterized mostly by computer issues and law school malaise.

Now I'd like to offer an"American Psycho" style review of Toni's albums, for those not in the know (and to delay the inevitable start of my Torts homework). This is about to get dorky, real fast:

Toni Braxton blew onto the scene in the early 1990s, riding a wave of mushy Babyface-produced ballads. But despite the synthetic beats and velvety orchestrations, the songs were catchy and lyrically nimble: "Seven Whole Days," "Another Sad Love Song." The inescapable, respiratory anthem, "Breathe Again." The daughter of a preacher from Landover, Maryland, Toni was not the cutest singer in the world with her short hair, but that's ok.

1996 brought a big album, "Secrets," featuring the ubiqitious Diane Warren ode to grammatical liberalism, "Unbreak My Heart." She also had long hair now, which was a big improvement. This album included "You're Making Me High," my favorite Toni song ever, produced by Bryce Wilson, with an awesome intro, great bridge, and slightly dirty lyrics. This title was the inspiration for the small sign I made when I got to see Toni perform on Broadway in 2003 in the title role of Aida. [TONI / You Make /Me High] She enjoyed it and blew me kisses, clasping her hands in the empathetic symbol of "thank you, please sleep with me."

Her best album, "The Heat," came out in 2000, featuring the Rodney Jerkins track "He Wasn't Man Enough for Me," the acoustic masterpiece "Fairy Tale," and the pure erotic bliss of "Maybe." "Heat" marked Toni's departure from Babyface's shadow. She and her husband, Keri Lewis of Mint Condition, produced this album and gave it a sound that was contemporary, lively, and true. This album had legs, and I listened to it regularly for about - oh, five years now.

"More Than A Woman," Toni's 2003 follow-up, was problematic. The album's title came from a song from the recently deceased singer Aaliyah. Why she did this is unclear to me. (The only time Toni and Aaliyah collaborated, as far as I know, was when Toni vamped it up in a memorial video after she died. Everyone else looked somber and mournful, and there's Toni, caressing herself. Awkward.) There was an ill-suited but effective Neptunes track, "Hit the Freeway," and some wretched hip hop collaborations. But the album's suite of ballads had some great numbers - "Rock Me, Roll Me," featuring full orchestration and a smooth coda, and the Jerkins track "Do You Remember When," as well as "Tell Me," a sly nod to her aural predecessor, Anita Baker.

And now "Libra," which I've been listening to for two weeks. This album is strong. She is on a new label and has something to prove (not unlike Mariah, last spring). "Take This Ring" is a pretty blatant derivation of Amerie's "1 Thing," both by one of the best producers out there, Rich Harrison, but it is awesome. The tight syncopation of the chorus, the relentless neo-gogo drumbeat, and the jagged edges of the background vocals make for a supremely interesting song. Other highlights include the last track, an acoustic number called "Shadowless" that was recorded live, and "Finally," in which she shouts out herself by citing all of her song titles in a look back at her romantic past.

Anyways, I am glad to see Toni is doing well. She has a voice like no other. I've learned a lot about love, music, singing, and sex from Toni. I like singing her songs late at night because then I can really wallow in the low notes. She's a fun chick. Frankly, she's everything rhythm and blues should be.

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