Body & Soul

Toni Braxton has put the romance back into black music. Interview by Jacqueline Springer. Photograph by Jeff Stern

Four years ago, a soul album was released at a time when everyone was enraptured with violent and explicit rap music. That album was Toni Braxton's self-titled debut. It sold more than 10 million copies, and, in so doing, it has rejuvenated the traditions of soul balladry, suggesting something that's both contemporary and reminiscent of a courtlier era, the Motown of Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Although the LP was executively produced by the men of the moment, Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, its phenomenal success was unexpected, and Braxton's success propelled all three to stardom. Babyface has since produced Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Madonna, and has had a hand in 16 Number One hits, including one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road".

When Reid and Babyface first saw her, Braxton was just a member of her sibling group The Braxtons. The eldest of seven children, she was born to an opera-loving mother and preacher father from Maryland. On her debut album, recorded for their own, Atlanta-based, La Face Records, Braxton made unhappiness a virtue: in the immemorial line of pop artistry, she still loved her man, even though he'd cheated, lied and done her wrong. She offered solace in the teeth of faithlessness, and, like the rest of us women, was foolish and optimistic enough to return for more.

The album made vulnerability and romance acceptable once again in black music, even though these were really the words of her songwriters, all men. Whitney Houston, who has also been produced by Babyface, agrees with Braxton about his empathy with women. "He's the only guy I know who can write about how a woman feels," she says. "There's definitely a Babyface sound," Braxton adds. "There's two formulas. It's normally verse, B section and hook. But occasionally it's verse, hook and bridge."

A dry-witted, self-deprecating woman, Braxton has ruminated a good deal over the power men have wielded in her life, shaping her creative destiny, marketing her sexuality - the stuff of pop history. "Patti Labelle once told me something," she offers. "She said, `don't ever let anyone think you suit a suit'. All the producers I've worked with are wonderful talents, but Toni is here because of Toni's talent, too. I'm not a vessel. It takes great songs, great producers and a voice, and I'm more than just a voice."

Indeed, she has co-written (and co-produced) Secrets, her new album, the thrust of which is her bid to appeal to the younger, street-orientated buyer, and thus to demystify her. But Braxton is unlike most other black female singers. She's not an open book like Billie Holliday, and she hasn't had a publicly volatile marriage like Tina Turner's or Whitney Houston's. In fact, because she keeps her personal life private, the pop media has assumed she was homosexual.

She's rebuffed the suggestion so many times that it no longer warrants discussion, but it has affected her. How else do you explain the sexually cognitive approach of her single, "You're Makin' Me High", or her performance at this year's Billboard Awards, during which she stripped, or why she's at pains to point out the benefits of masturbation? "That's what `You're Makin' Me High', was all about," she says. "Masturbation. It's a very safe form of sex."

But Secrets remains faithful to the exploration of love. The LP's second single, the mournful "Unbreak My Heart", exemplifies this. It topped the US pop charts for 18 weeks, but several urban radio stations refused to play it because it wasn't funky enough.In response to this criticism, Braxton's singles are now remixed with contributions from the hip-hop and dance communities. "The same ol' same ol' is boring," she says, defensively. "It's important that there's flair and variety."

Like the victims in her songs, she wants it all. But also like them, getting it all is a different story

Toni Braxton plays Wembley Arena next Friday and Saturday, 9 and 10 May

News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links