Drop dead gorgeous and with an equally attractive deep, rich voice, Toni Braxton seemingly came from nowhere to become one of the top R&B vocalists of the 90s. As the perfect interpreter of some of the great songs written and produced by Babyface and L.A. Reid during a several year stretch, Braxton became a star and has attained continued popularity with an adult soul audience ever since.
Born in 1968 in Severn, Maryland, the daughter of a minister and a singer, Braxton performed regularly in church with her talented sisters. The family act continued to grow in popularity as the girls hit their late teens and ultimately they were signed to Arista Records in the late 80s. The act, called The Braxtons, recorded without much success, but hot songwriters/producers Babyface and L.A. Reid fell in love with Toni’s contralto voice and called her out for a solo career -- a move that brought both conflict and guilt to Braxton, who didn't want to leave her family act. Her solo recordings began with “Love Shoulda Brought You Home,” a single from the movie soundtrack Boomerang. The song became a hit and led to a full length album for Braxton that blew the doors off of R&B radio, spawning monster hits with “You Mean the World to Me,” “Another Sad Love Song” and the brilliant ballad, “Breathe Again.”
The album Toni Braxton catapulted Braxton to the A-List of R&B performers and began a string of hit albums and songs. Her sophomore album, Secrets, was just as big, topping the charts and yielding “You’re Makin’ Me High” and Braxton’s signature ballad, “Unbreak My Heart.”
Sadly, despite her great recording success, Braxton was broke by 1997, the unfortunate result of a "newcomer" contract with Arista Records. Legal wranglings kept Braxton on the sidelines for nearly 4 years after Secrets, but she returned in 2000 with The Heat and the hit “He Wasn’t Man Enough.” The album did well by most standards, but began a long, slow sales decline for Braxton than continued over her subsequent albums, 2002's More Than A Woman and 2005's Libra.
Braxton created a full-time Las Vegas show in the late 00s, and became a spokesperson for causes related to autism (her young son is autistic). However, tragedy struck in the form of a diagnosis of lupus, an illness that caused Braxton to cancel her Vegas show and caused a second bankruptcy filing by the star.
She competed on the television series Dancing With the Stars and, in 2009, signed with Atlantic Records and went back to the studio to record Pulse. A number of great tracks were recorded in the Pulse sessions, but were trimmed down to a rather tame final collection. Considering the five year absence since Libra, the album charted impressively and generally received positive reviews. She followed a couple years later with an excellent album of duets with Babyface, covering the arc of a relationship very nicely.
While Toni Braxton’s enviable career has had an abundance of starts and stops, she is undoubtedly one of the most physically magnetic and musically notable vocalists of her generation. And more than two decades into her public career, she is still an artist to watch.
By Chris Rizik