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