By John McAlley
The daughter of a fundamentalist minister, Toni Braxton knows a thing or two about testifying. So when pop-soul smoothies L.A. and Babyface went looking for a funky diva to groom as the "first lady of LaFace" (their Atlanta-based production house and boutique label), they found in 25-year-old Braxton a homegirl with a hook: a preternatural contralto that crackled with Tina Turner's fiery spirit and pulsed with Anita Baker's aching vulnerability yet was capable of soaring to Whitney Houston's heights.
Braxton had her coming out with "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," a modest hit from last year's Boomerang soundtrack. A slow-groove saga of betrayal and infidelity, the song revealed Braxton's vocal promise and established her image as a feisty survivor in the face of heartbreak. Its popularity did not, however, prefigure the explosive success of Toni Braxton, her debut album. Credit that to the album's skyrocketing first single. "Another Sad Love Song"—with its dynamic vocal, gargantuan hook and clever song-with-in-a-song lyric—surely ranks with "The End of the Road," "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and "Every Little Step" as one of LaFace's greatest triumphs. "Another Sad Love Song" reinforces Braxton's lovelorn persona, as do several other midtempo ballads that L.A., Babyface and Daryl Simmons have front-loaded into Toni Braxton. Indeed, by the time you've gotten through the album's best material—"Breathe Again" (the second single), "Seven Whole Days" and "Love Shoulda Brought You Home"—Braxton's love hangover has reached ludicrously epic proportions.
Certainly, Braxton has got chops and spunk ("I ain't down with o.p.p.," she snaps on "Love Affair"). And, yes, there are a handful of songs in which she gets to do the do. But there's not a poet in the house among LaFace's family of writer-producers—no Smokey Robinson, no Linda Creed. And for all its polish, too much of the music on Toni Braxton mistakes melodrama for passion and set pieces for soul.