Glamour, Grace, and Grit: the anthology Breathe Again: The Best of Toni Braxton

By Daniel Garrett

Toni Braxton, Breathe Again: The Best of Toni Braxton
Sony (Camden), 2009

I love me some Toni Braxton, a male friend once told me, and no wonder: on one of her old songs, “Seven Whole Days,” with the authority of an exasperated woman and the mesmerizing skill of a dramatic actress she performs the kind of take-down of a man—confident, hurt, sensually teasing, imitatively mocking—that most men would not want to be the subject of, but which, if you can hear it as music, has you shaking your head in rhythm and tapping fingers on your knee. Toni Braxton sings from strength of the vulnerabilities of being in love. I once knew a stupid woman who said that she did not expect much from Toni Braxton after the singer had a period of financial difficulty, the kind of assertion that offers proof that some people have no understanding of art, character, or life, and really expect the world to be as small as their own intelligence or spirit. To judge an artist, the first and last thing you must judge is talent. If you do not know that, you do not know a great deal. Toni Braxton is both a song stylist and a popular entertainer; and she has touched places in an audience that used to be reserved for the obscure divas requiring special introductions and interpretations. It says much that her toughness is direct but not frightening, and that her sensuality is easy to see but does not diminish respect for her. Breathe Again: The Best of Toni Braxton, covering the years 1992 through 2002, gathers some of the songs that brought Toni Braxton to an appreciative and large audience: “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” and “Seven Whole Days” and “Another Sad Love Song” and “You’re Makin’ Me High” and “Unbreak My Heart” and “He Wasn’t Man Enough.”

“If love ends, then I promise you, I promise you, I shall never breathe again,” sings Toni Braxton, words that could seem merely masochistic in the mouth of another singer, but coming from Braxton sound like the overwhelming passion and promise of romance. Toni Braxton’s version of the song “Breathe Again,” written by Babyface (Kenny Edmonds), begins with its chorus, like a conversation in progress, before the singer reminisces, then asks, “How could you love me then leave?” It is the song that commences The Best of Toni Braxton; and an intense, sorrowing ballad, written by Diane Warren, “Unbreak My Heart,” continues the theme, and Braxton broadens and deepens her phrasing (listening to her one could be watching a play, or contemplating opera). “Take back that sad word goodbye,” she sings, a timeless lover’s request. “He Wasn’t Man Enough” is a conversation between women, a one-upmanship (with a busy musical arrangement), in which one woman gets told about her prize (“He wasn’t man enough for me” and “girl you better recognize the game”). Braxton can be direct, earthy, without seeming to lack dignity, intelligence, or sanity; and she uses some of the techniques of soul music without being burdened with its limitations of perspective or associations. The dispirited “I Don’t Want To” is followed by “How Could An Angel Break My Heart?,” a song co-written by Braxton with Babyface, in which a woman sings about a beloved man who seems to belong to another woman but that man’s voice denies that perception. “I get so high when I’m around you,” sings Braxton in “You’re Makin’ Me High.”

Toni Braxton can sound as fierce as Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight, as huskily sexual a popular music princess as Donna Summer, as meditative and elegant as Anita Baker (I also think of the emotion of Streisand and the theatricality of Annie Lennox); and yet the listener does not—cannot—confuse her with anyone else. She is sensual and soulful in “You’re Makin’ Me High” and achieves her effects in that song with a certain lightness, but her attitude in “Love Shoulda Brought You Home,” written by Babyface with Daryl Simmons, is both corrective and passionate. Did I say that she was not frightening? There can be something frightening about a woman who knows she loves you but can still tell you how wrong you are and the detrimental impact you are having on her. “I guess I’m all messed up,” sings Braxton in “Another Sad Love Song,” a composition containing memory, sadness, anger, and is musically rousing too. Braxton is equally convincing in “You Mean the World to Me” and the uptempo “I Belong to You” and the grateful “How Many Ways” and “Give U My Heart,” but may be suited to songs like “A Better Man” (as in “there’s gotta be a better man for me”). Songs such as “Seven Whole Days,” written by Babyface and Antonio Reid, that allow complexity—intense love and moral accusation—may be best of all.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.