Toni Braxton's back, with a pretty 'Please'

But this time, 'Libra' tips scales toward the commercial

Spotlight

September 25, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Her voice is usually husky, famously so. And on the phone at 10 in the morning, it is especially heavy and low. "Hi. This is Toni Braxton," she says then clears her throat.

The R&B-pop superstar is calling from her home in Atlanta, where she's resting before she hits the road to promote her new album, Libra, which appears in stores Tuesday. Five years have flown by since Braxton's last substantial hit, 2000's No. 1 R&B smash, He Wasn't Man Enough. Since then, her albums -- 2001's Snowflakes, a Christmas set, and 2002's More Than a Woman have been mostly lukewarm affairs, reaching nowhere near her peak sales in the '90s.

Back then, Braxton's sweeping love ballads such as "Breathe Again" and "Un-Break My Heart" lingered at the top of the charts. Her first two albums, 1993's Toni Braxton and 1996's Secrets, sold more than eight million copies apiece. Her last big-selling set was 2000's The Heat, which pushed two million copies.

In the years away from the studio, Braxton married musician Keri Lewis in 2001 and had two boys: Denim, 3, and Diezel, 2. The singer also discovered she had pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining around the heart. With a firm handle on the disease, Braxton now seems ready to attempt the kind of career resurgence recently enjoyed by her pop diva contemporary of the '90s, Mariah Carey.

One of the most commercially successful artists of the 1990s, Braxton brought a gospel-honed sultriness to R&B that hadn't been heard since the rise of Anita Baker 10 years before. Braxton's sound was soulful enough to appease diehard R&B listeners and smooth enough to satisfy pop fiends. Plus, the camera loved the singer's sculptured features and seductive eyes. As she sold more records, she wore less and less. Braxton picked up numerous awards, including six Grammys, in clingy, skimpy outfits that left little to ponder.

Now, at 36, the artist says she feels even sexier.

"I don't want to do anything that would embarrass myself or my kids," the artist says. "I'm comfortable with my age and my sexuality. I'm proud of my body."

That confident, sexy-but-classy image has never hurt Braxton's marketability. "Her marketing brand exudes love and sensuality," says Morris Reid, managing director of Westin Rinehart, a Washington-based public affairs firm. "She's still beautiful and petite and sexy. She's known for love music."

Libra, Braxton's debut for Blackground / Universal Records, tries to update the singer's velvety sound, placing it in hard-edged productions similar to the ones that have catapulted much younger performers to the top of the charts.

"We tried to be clever and incorporate new sounds in my old sound. It was hard at first. I do wish the album had a few more slow songs," she says. "Overall, I'm satisfied."

"Please," the "promotional" single for Libra, hit urban airwaves in May, preceding the album's release by almost four months. A spare, mid-tempo number with a heavy bottom and zippy strings, "Please" hasn't exactly been a runaway hit. Without a hot, catchy single, Libra may fail to explode right away.

"I don't think this will be her Mariah Carey-like comeback," says Gail Mitchell, senior editor of R&B and hip-hop at Billboard magazine. "[Libra] is still very rooted in R&B and there are not enough songs [on the album] to cross over."

Carey's multi-platinum comeback album, The Emancipation of Mimi, was successful because it played to her strengths as a vocalist. Her dramatic, melodic ballad, "We Belong Together," stayed at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart for 10 weeks this summer. With uncluttered productions and catchy, strong material, Carey went back to the belting diva style that initially made her a star. But those who loved the same approach from Braxton -- the full delivery that made songs such as "Love Shoulda Brought You Home Last Night" modern classics -- won't find it on Libra. The album, with production by the Underdogs, Scott Storch, Rich Harrison and others, is decidedly trend-conscious.

Reid says: "When I buy a Bentley, I expect a Bentley, not a Toyota. When I think Toni Braxton, I think big ballads and love songs. That's what I expect to hear."

Braxton says she doesn't feel she's lost herself in the beat-driven songs that dominate Libra. It was a matter of making her sound more commercially viable. "I had to put artistry on the back burner on some songs and be more commercial on some songs," she says. "But I still had to be myself."

Despite the trendy production and tepid tunes on Libra, Reid says it's not too late for Braxton to return to her glory days. Between albums, the singer has appeared on Broadway in Beauty and The Beast and Aida. She starred in the 2001 comedy Kingdom Come with Whoopi Goldberg and Jada Pinkett-Smith. And she had a recurring role on the recently canceled UPN show, Kevin Hill. Reid says the multimedia approach could work.

"She needs to be strategic about it. She needs to find the right roles, nothing too big yet. Her core is still music," he says. "What's going to be important is that Toni is true to her brand."

Braxton's new album probably won't rocket her to where she once was in the pop stratosphere.

"The telling factor is radio," Mitchell says. "If people don't hear her music or know that her album is out, they're not going to be checking for her."

Braxton's ready for the challenge.

"I definitely do not feel old," she says. "When you've been around a long time, people forget you," she says. You have to try something different. You got to reinvent yourself."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

TONI BRAXTON

Born: Oct. 7, 1968, in Severn, Md.

First solo contract: Braxton in 1991 was the first female act signed to LaFace Records, the Arista-distributed boutique label run by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid.

First two albums: Reportedly grossed more than $170 million.

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