'Charting Black Excellence' celebrates black artists and their current accomplishments on the Billboard charts, which often don't receive the proper recognition and attention.
Usually when Beyoncé does a digital drop on any social platform, it’s like no other and you feel obligated to listen. On Halloween 2017, Bey took the internet by storm by recreating a few iconic and cult-favorite looks from Lil’ Kim. This past Halloween Eve, Instagram timelines were blessed by the singer dressing as one of her other idols: Toni Braxton. According to the artist who most hail as “Queen Bey,” Braxton is “one of our talented legends (who serves) countless bops.”
OK, so Bey didn’t say “serve.” But, those on Twitter were simply impressed by the mention of “countless bops.” This week’s column only felt right to actually revisit those “countless bops” and how they made an impact on the charts.
For her costume, Beyoncé recreated two album covers from Braxton’s 1993 self-titled debut project. Rocking a similar black leather coat, white tank top, blue boyfriend jeans, and Braxton’s signature short cut, Beyoncé salutes the single art for “Another Sad Love Song” in addition to the actual album.
Although Braxton’s formal introduction as a solo artist came in 1992 with “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” off the Boomerang soundtrack, “Another Sad Love Song” became the official debut single. As that song went to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1993 -– topping the former single’s No. 33 peak — Braxton started to carve out a fitting niche for her sound.
Beyoncé is an artist who prides herself on her balladry and the sultriness that comes along with pop and R&B drama. It’s only fitting that she honor the woman who executed that aesthetic the best in the 1990s up until now. Braxton’s arrival to music meant that there was a new queen of the quiet storm genre and radio format -- and she was set to make her mark.
Based on the likes of Lisa Fischer’s “How Can I Ease The Pain” and Michel’le’s “Something In My Heart,” the late 80s into the early 90s had an affinity for film noir-fusion with black femininity. It’s why Braxton’s role on the Boomerang soundtrack was so integral, as that movie’s protagonist takes after the same design.
The songs off Braxton’s self-titled debut album, which went No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and is now RIAA certified 8x platinum, continued that narrative. Just as “Another Sad Love Song” crept like a breeze, the follow up single “Breathe Again” amplified that mood with a -- for lack of better words -- breathy-vocal delivery. Regarded as one of her signatures — even reaching No. 2 on the UK charts — “Breathe Again” reached No. 3 on the Hot 100.
Through Braxton’s rise of hits, she became a clearer industry standard in terms of how to promote an artist’s music in the 90s. Her labels at the time, LaFace and Arista, had a knack for releasing certain songs to radio only, while others were singles that could be purchased. “Seven Whole Days” didn’t end up making the Hot 100 because of a rule that forbade radio-only songs that were for purchase from making the chart. However, “Seven Whole Days” ended up at No. 48 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart and No. 1 on the R&B and Hip Hop Airplay chart.
In 1994, “You Mean The World To Me” saw the same peak as “Another Sad Love Song,” but with a more gracious disposition than the latter. To close out her debut era, Braxton released a double A-side single of “I Belong To You” and “How Many Ways”— the latter receiving an official Bad Boy remix. Together, the songs reached No. 28 on the chart. But, the standout had to be “How Many Ways” for its more street-oriented, new jack swing flare, which contrasted the ballads with slower tempos.
On to the year of 1996 and Braxton had become a part of the commercial wave in the mid-90s that accepted quiet storm. Joining the likes of Boyz II Men, Sadé, and Anita Baker; Braxton’s work outlined some of the genre’s framework. Her sophomore album, Secrets, became an opus for that sound as it infused quiet storm with the beginning workings of moody alt-R&B (“I Love Me Some Him”), operatic jazz (“How Could An Angel Break My Heart”), and hip hop soul (“You’re Makin’ Me High”). Analogous to the success of Toni Braxton, this album is a necessity and must know amongst R&B history.
Secrets is the moment where Braxton went full fledge pop, but by the means of popularity. Her style of music had become the latest trend of the mainstream and songs such as “Un-Break My Heart” (a role model for the balladry of Beyoncé’s I Am … Sasha Fierce) reaped No. 1 Hot 100 benefits. This was preceded by the B-side releases of “You’re Makin’ Me High” and “Let It Flow.” Her sultriness on “You’re Makin’ Me High” caused a bit of scandal for the name of feminism, as some suspect the song pays ode to masturbation. It’d become her first No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart.
On the other hand, “Let It Flow” highlighted how richer Braxton’s contralto voice became. “Let It Flow” served as a radio smash from the 1995 soundtrack of Waiting To Exhale. It’s on this song where she truly flexes her agility to ad-lib and command the -- no pun intended -- flow of a melody through her voice. These songs weren’t only making an impact on “urban radio,” but also crossing over to adult contemporary with ease. Braxton low-key -- but actually for the times, very high-key -- was internationally respected, setting a precedent for the likes of Adele in the future.
Ending the Secrets era with a double-sided release of “I Don’t Want To” and “I Love Me Some Him,” Braxton again captured radio’s attention. “I Love Me Some Him” hinted at the power neo-soul would eventually have on R&B stations. The songs reached No. 19 on the Hot 100 chart, and No. 9 on the R&B and Hip-Hop chart.
As the new millennium arrived, so did a more upbeat and risqué Braxton. Her sound ventured out of the softer adult contemporary-R&B sway and embraced pop and hip-hop cadences much more. In 2000, her third album, The Heat, gifted jilted lovers the feisty call-to-arms, “He Wasn’t Man Enough For Me.” Produced by Darkchild, “He Wasn’t Man Enough” became her last Top 10 hit as a lead singer to date on the Hot 100 chart. Thanks to its electro-hop&B vibes, the song helped further cement the mainstream appeal of that niche sub-genre.
From there on, the remaining singles of her discography started missing the charts, barely scratching the surface. “Just Be A Man About It” from The Heat and “Hit The Freeway” from 2002’s More Than A Woman were the last to see the Hot 100. With family drama, health scares, bankruptcy, and record label misrepresentation; the charting success of Braxton’s music suffered. This began to skew the perception of her legacy. Still, Braxton managed to produce “countless bops” that only real fans of R&B appreciated.
Her most slept on album to date is 2005’s Libra and it fortified her presence on adult R&B skewing radio. Full of off-hand deep cuts, Libra expressed a balanced maturity with in Braxton’s work. “Take This Ring” — a song with a NOLA bounce that seemed to be favored by Baltimore radio — could have been a catalyst to the "Single Ladies" of future airplay. “Please,” the album’s first single, managed to also set up a mood of liberation.
Up to the present, Braxton has dropped three more albums since Liberation. Her 2013 collab album with Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce, earned the pair a Grammy. And she’s still charting, just not on the all encompassing Hot 100. Instead, Braxton has transformed into the Queen of Adult R&B, as she’s collected 8 No. 1 singles through that format. Her 2018 single, “Long As I Live,” which is a bit of a dreamy nuanced track fitting closely to “Breathe Again” and her Secrets era, has become the latest to earn that position.
Looking at 2018 as a whole, a lot of milestone anniversaries have passed, making Beyoncé’s homage all the more impressive. Braxton’s self-titled album turned 25 in June. Fittingly enough, Bey’s own debut album, Dangerously In Love, which includes endless love balladry akin to Braxton’s, turned 15 in June. In addition to that, I Am … Sasha Fierce, which has an entire A-disc dedicated to operatic ballads and a B-side with a few uptempo ballads, turns 10 later this month.
Just as Beyoncé played a key role of shaping the sound of 90s and aughts' music, Braxton has made the same strides. Although her stats have leveled out and even underserved her artistic brilliance, Braxton will forever be in the realm of the Whitney Houstons, Mariah Careys, and Celine Dions of the 90s. As for the 2000s, she should also be considered in the league of active legends who continue to inspire beyond the charts, such as Janet Jackson.
Even today, Braxton is still in the record books, as “Un-Break My Heart” is considered the No. 13 single of all time in the Hot 100’s 60 years of existence. What’s even more telling of her legendary status is her position on the Greatest Hot 100 Women Artists chart chart. At No. 35, Braxton sits one position under Britney Spears. But, she stands tall over Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Adele, and Monica — to name a few, thanks to the “countless bops” that she's created.
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