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
people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
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

    QA/BA - Agile

    £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

    PPA Supply Teachers

    £121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prima...

    Primary Supply Teacher

    £121 - £142 per annum: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prim...

    Primary Supply Teacher

    £121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?