Blending fire and finesse, Toni Braxton has wielded broad appeal throughout a career studded with Top Ten pop and R&B/hip-hop hits, multi-platinum certifications, and major award recognition. Soulful enough for R&B audiences yet smooth enough for adult contemporary play lists, sophisticated enough for adults but sultry enough for younger listeners, and equally proficient at heartbroken and seductive material, Braxton made her solo debut at full power during the early ’90s. Her first two albums, Toni Braxton (1993) and Secrets (1996), both went platinum eight times over, accompanied by a string of hit singles that included “Un-break My Heart,” which ranks among the longest-running number one pop hits of the rock era. Each one of her subsequent albums has been treated as an event, whether it has followed a brief or extended break in studio activity. They have regularly debuted within the Top Ten, highlighted by Love, Marriage & Divorce (2014), a set of duets with long-term collaborator Babyface that made her one of the few artists to be handed Grammy Awards in each of three decades. From “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” to her first single of the 2020s, “Do It,” Braxton’s Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hits span a similar length of time. The latter appeared on her first album for Island, Spell My Name (2020).
Toni Michele Braxton was born in Severn, Maryland, on October 7, 1968. The daughter of a minister, she was raised mostly in the strict Apostolic faith. Encouraged by their mother, an operatically trained vocalist, Braxton and her four sisters began singing in church as girls. Although gospel was the only music permitted in the household, the girls often watched Soul Train when their parents went shopping. Braxton’s parents later converted to a different faith and eased their restrictions on secular music somewhat, allowing Braxton more leeway to develop her vocal style. Because of her husky voice, she often used male singers like Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, and Michael McDonald as models, as well as Chaka Khan. Braxton had some success on the local talent show circuit, continuing to sing with her sisters, and after high school studied to become a music teacher. However, she soon dropped out of college after she was discovered singing to herself at a gas station by songwriter Bill Pettaway (who co-authored Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True”). With Pettaway’s help, Braxton and her sisters signed with Arista Records in 1990 as a group dubbed simply the Braxtons.
The Braxtons released a single in 1990 called “The Good Life,” and while it wasn’t a hit, it caught the attention of L.A. Reid and Babyface, the red-hot songwriting/production team who had just formed their own label, LaFace (which was associated with Arista). Braxton became the first female artist signed to LaFace in 1991, and the following year she was introduced to the listening public with a high-profile appearance on the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. Not only did her solo cut “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” become a substantial pop and R&B hit, but she also duetted with Babyface himself on “Give U My Heart.” Anticipation for Braxton’s first album ran high, and when her eponymous solo debut was released in 1993, it was an across-the-board smash, climbing to number one on both the pop and R&B charts. It spun off hit after hit, including three more Top Ten singles in “Another Sad Love Song,” “Breathe Again,” and “You Mean the World to Me,” plus the double-sided R&B hit “I Belong to You”/“How Many Ways.” Toni Braxton’s run of popularity lasted well into 1995. By that time, Braxton had scored Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal (“Another Sad Love Song”), and tacked on another win in the latter category for “Breathe Again.”
To tide fans over until her next album was released, Braxton contributed “Let It Flow” to the Whitney Houston-centered soundtrack of Waiting to Exhale in 1995. Again working heavily with L.A. Reid and Babyface, Braxton released her second album, Secrets, in the summer of 1996, and predictably, it was another enormous hit. The first single, “You’re Makin’ Me High,” was Braxton’s most overtly sexual yet, and it became her biggest pop hit to date. However, its success was soon eclipsed by the follow-up single, the Diane Warren-penned ballad “Un-break My Heart.” The song was an inescapable juggernaut, spending an amazing 11 weeks on top of the pop chart (and even longer on the adult contemporary chart). Further singles “I Don’t Want To” and “How Could an Angel Break My Heart” weren’t quite as successful (hardly an indictment), but that didn’t really matter; by then Secrets was already her second straight multi-platinum hit. In 1997, she picked up Grammy Awards for Best Female Pop Vocal and Best Female R&B Vocal (for “Un-break My Heart” and “You’re Makin’ Me High,” respectively).
Toward the end of 1997, Braxton filed a lawsuit against LaFace Records, attempting to gain release from a contract she felt was no longer fair or commensurate with her status. When LaFace countersued, Braxton filed for bankruptcy, a move that shocked many fans (who wondered how that could be possible, given her massive sales figures) but actually afforded her protection from further legal action. She spent most of 1998 in legal limbo, and passed the time by signing on to portray Belle in the Broadway production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Braxton and LaFace finally reached a settlement in early 1999, and the singer soon began work on her third album. The Heat was released in the spring of 2000, and entered the Billboard 200 at number two, matching the highest position held by Secrets. Lead single “He Wasn’t Man Enough” was a Top Ten hit and an R&B/hip-hop chart-topper. A brisk seller out of the box, The Heat eventually cooled off around the two-million mark and led to yet another Grammy win for Best Female R&B Vocal (“He Wasn’t Man Enough”).
Following the release of the holiday album Snowflakes, Braxton appeared in the VH1 movie Play’d and recorded More Than a Woman. Released toward the end of 2002 with half of its songs co-written with sister Tamar, it broke Braxton’s streak of Top Ten studio albums and prompted a temporary move to the Blackground label. Libra, supported with the singles “Please” and “That’s the Way Love Works (Trippin’),” started a new streak of Top Ten entries in 2005. In Europe, it was re-released the following year with the addition of the Il Divo collaboration “The Time of Our Lives,” the official 2006 FIFA World Cup anthem. It was around this time that Braxton became the main performer at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Her show, Toni Braxton: Revealed, ran until April 2008, when she joined the cast of the competitive reality show Dancing with the Stars. After lasting five weeks before being voted off the show, Braxton completed Pulse, her first full-length for Atlantic. Issued in May 2010, it became her fifth Top Ten album.
Braxton further boosted her 2010s comeback profile by participating in another reality TV series, the long-running Braxton Family Values, which focused on her relationship with her mother and four sisters. Meanwhile, she reunited with Babyface to record the duets album Love, Marriage & Divorce. Released by Motown in 2014, it went to number four just before the duo starred in a Broadway production of After Midnight. Love, Marriage & Divorce won the Grammy Award in the category of Best R&B Album just months before Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir was published. The book detailed Braxton’s triumphs, as well as her business and health struggles behind the scenes, and led to a similarly titled biographical television film.
Braxton’s affiliation with the Def Jam label began in 2015 with her second holiday recording, Braxton Family Christmas. Although lupus complications hampered Braxton’s touring schedule, she worked on a new album and in 2017 accepted a Soul Train Legend Award. Sex & Cigarettes, a set dominated by aching ballads, arrived in 2018. It reached number 22 and led to a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album, while “Long as I Live,” a Top 20 R&B/hip-hop single, was up for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance. The Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hit “Do It,” featuring Missy Elliott, followed in 2020 as the first result of a new deal with Island Records. Spell My Name, on which she was also joined by H.E.R., arrived that August. ~ Steve Huey & Andy Kellman