Although she’s the daughter of a deeply conservative apostolic minister who didn’t allow her to listen to pop music when she was a little girl, it must not have been very difficult for Toni Braxton to relate to the songs crafted for her by writer-producer Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds. Babyface venerates love; for him, romance is a religion to be both studied and enacted. And on Braxton’s new album, Secrets, the singer and her recording mentor offer up a series of secular hymns to attraction and affection, betrayal and brokenheartedness, cooing and cohabitation.
You can hear their devotion in a song such as ”How Could an Angel Break My Heart,” cowritten by Babyface and Braxton. Over a lulling ballad melody, the singer makes her agony a thing of beauty, pausing with daring vocal timing over the lyrics’ details of a lover’s wayward behavior. And you can hear a different sort of testament to the redemptive powers of love in ”You’re Makin Me High,” the album’s airily funky first single. Both ”High” and the finger-poppingly upbeat ”Come On Over Here” give the lie to doubters who thought Braxton could sell only slow songs effectively.
Having sold more than 7 million copies of her self-titled 1993 debut album, Braxton had to face up to a big challenge. Toni Braxton had yielded a string of hit singles (”Another Sad Love Song,” ”Breathe Again”), and ”Let It Flow,” from the soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale, is presently a staple of urban contemporary radio. But sophomore albums are, as the cliche goes, jinxed, and Braxton must have worried, just a little, whether all those young one-name female upstarts — Brandy, Monica, Monifa, and their sisters — might render her languid take on love irrelevant.
But instead of trying to pursue the cutting edge and emulate the youngsters’ melding of R&B and hip-hop, Braxton has opted to skew older: Secrets offers space to veteran songwriter-producers Diane Warren and David Foster, who between them have worked with a slew of middlebrow behemoths from Barbra Streisand to Michael Bolton. Warren came up with ”Un-Break My Heart,” a tearjerker so grandiose and yet so intrinsically, assuredly hit-bound, it’s the kind of mass-appeal grabber that’s probably already sent a jealous Diana Ross diving for a comfort gallon of Haagen-Dazs.
Easily the worst song on Secrets and therefore worth lingering over for a second, ”Un-Break My Heart” (produced by Foster, so Babyface is guilt-free) is one of those the-verses-exist-only-for-the-swelling-chorus showstoppers that allude to emotions without ever actually embodying them. Braxton does her darnedest to plug some life into the song, to no avail. And no matter: This is the sort of MOR fodder that becomes a radio standby in spite of itself. Its selection by Braxton and coexecutive producers Antonio ”L.A.” Reid and Babyface was, in this sense, a shrewd, if artistically disappointing, one.
Braxton gets more solid material from other outsiders, like R. Kelly (whose ”I Don’t Want To” is a cool tune about romance in denial) and Tony Rich (co-writer of ”Come On Over Here,” a neo-Motown composition in the manner of Rich’s own best work).
As for the core Braxton/Babyface collaborations, well, they are diverse, witty, and exquisitely modulated. Indeed, Babyface’s ”Let It Flow” (also included here) is one of Braxton’s most successfully adventurous moments. A sultry tune that requires the singer to reach down to her lowest register, ”Flow” has a sinuous power, and it flows into the next track, ”Why Should I Care,” in which Braxton ascends to a high, breathy croon. Taken together, this pair of songs not only demonstrates Braxton’s technical range but confirms her ability to deliver Secrets’ sermons of sensuality — little gospels of good and bad loving — with unusual eloquence. A-