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-