Toni Braxton: The Debut
It All Started With a Purr.
Not quite the kind of vocal purr that Eartha Kitt famously once possessed. This purr was vastly different: vaguely androgynous, with a fry that would horrify most experienced vocal coaches, yet intrinsically worked for her. The purr was deep. One now disgraced singer once facetiously quipped that the owner sounded like “the female Elvis.” This proved to be untrue, as the purr was strangely feminine and unmistakably seductive, yet tinged with an innate and sometimes guttural hint of pain. It was deceptive, mostly coming from the proverbial “basement” of the owner’s register, while seemingly out of nowhere, reaching a falsetto a singer like that rarely has in their wheelhouse.
When the owner of this vocal purr, a diminutive 25-year-old woman hailing from Severn, Maryland, linked up with pioneering singer-songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, what resulted was not only one of the most enduring musical partnerships of all time but one of the greatest debut albums the world has ever seen. In July 1993, Toni Michele Braxton arrived and proved she was here to stay.
By the time her self-titled debut album dropped, Toni Braxton up until that point had lived a life that was a far cry from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Born the first of six children, Braxton had grown up with the strict religious teachings of her clergyman father, and under the restrictive tutelage of her mother. She’d known minimal success previously, as along with her four sisters, she served as the lead singer of the original incarnation of the R&B group, The Braxtons. While it was obvious that the sisters were talented to varying degrees, it was Toni who was the unmistakable star.
A “Musical Marriage”
By 1993, Kenneth Edmonds and L.A. Reid had found a way to exploit their new star’s talents in the best way possible. It began of course, with the music. Recording of the album began just under a year earlier in Atlanta, where by that point, Braxton had already recorded her duet with Edmonds, “Give U My Heart” and her first solo single “Love Shoulda Brought You Home”, both for the soundtrack to the 1992 film, Boomerang. Love as it turned out, would be the album’s center-point, as the work perfectly embodies the ebbs and flows of relationships. We take a seamless journey throughout a love story in its different phases.
With a relatable ear, we journey with Braxton as she girlishly describes “the honeymoon phase” in tracks such as “How Many Ways” (Shemar Moore, anyone?), “Best Friend,” “I Belong To You” and “Candlelight.” We feel through her the emotional uncertainty during rougher times with “You Mean The World To Me.” We even condoned more immoral behavior from Toni, as she coyly entertains the thought of infidelity in “Love Affair,” just because it was so damn sexy. Come on, when she sings the line, “I have a boyfrieeeennnd!” you can’t tell me that you didn’t want her to choose chaos, and cheat!
The Boomerang Effect
There is a strong chance that you’ve seen your mamas or your aunties recreating the famous scene in Boomerang, in which Halle Berry’s Angela “muffs” Eddie Murphy’s Marcus in the forehead, while cooly saying, “Loooove, shoulda brought your ass HOME last night!” – an obvious reference and evidence of the aforementioned track’s impact. Continuing that wave of accountability, the track “Seven Whole Days” sees Braxton sassing her man ALL the way together. Flanked by her younger sisters (R.I.P. Tracie), this visual is easily my favorite of the era. By the time we reach the stage of full-on heartache with songs like “Another Sad Love Song” (one of my absolute favorite songs of all time), and “Breathe Again,” we’ve run the whole emotional gamut that one can expect in a romantic relationship.
With one stroke of the proverbial wands of Babyface and L.A. Reid, Toni “Living Legend” Braxton had arrived. By shedding her homely Maryland aesthetic – repackaged as a tantalizing, lovesick R&B goddess – she easily stood toe-to-toe with her admitted influences of Anita Baker and Sade. With the sensual stage presence of a 1940s torch singer, Braxton quickly developed a sex appeal that rivaled her contemporaries Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.
Donning her iconic pixie cut, denim jeans, bold red lipstick, and black leather jacket on the album’s cover, Braxton would go on to shift not only what an R&B diva looks like, but would shatter the whole notion of what one is. Toni Braxton’s debut album, which would go on to nab her three GRAMMYs including one for Best New Artist, easily rendered the newcomer as one of the most commercially viable artists of the 1990s. The little plain girl from Severn, Maryland with the funny purr in her voice went on to become a living legend because she has one of the most distinguishable voices of all time.