Toni Braxton’s ‘Secrets’ is unforgettable, 20 years later

toni-braxton-1997-secrets-special-edition-album

June 18, 1996.

In 1993, Toni Braxton strutted onto the scene with a sultry voice and a seeming penchant for sad love songs. She quickly became an R&B superstar and racked up the hits. Naturally, the follow up to her debut was hotly anticipated, coming three years after her debut, arriving on June 18th, 1996. Secrets went on to become Toni’s most successful set, spawning two #1 singles and an 8x platinum certification from the RIAA. She had successfully avoided the sophomore slump – both in the creative and commercial sense of the phrase. In many ways, Secrets defined Toni’s sound from that point on and at the same time made her a household name around the world. Label and financial dramas aside, Secrets was the commercial highlight of Toni’s career and, likely for many fans, the musical highlight too. To honor this phenomenal body of work on its 20th anniversary, EST. 1997 writers Mario and Vincent will take a look at Secrets, track-by-track.

Secrets opens up with the bop that is “Come on Over Here.” This R&B jam slides into your speakers, and is a perfect mix of what made Toni’s debut great, yet what Secrets did to set her apart from the standard R&B sound. It makes for the perfect transition – it sounded old school, yet modern all the while having an extra layer of uniqueness in Toni’s signature low tones. Such notions continued on the album’s second track and lead single, “You’re Making Me High.” Inspired by the mid-90s explosion of hip-hop influenced R&B tracks, “You’re Making Me High” took on a more hard, hip-hop inspired bassline as well as a bit of Janet Jackson-esque sexual exploration. Rumor has it that Toni was also alluding to the use of marijuana. However, the song comes off as a not-so-subtle innuendo and drips sexiness. Her sultry voice and the damn near sticky lyrics made for one of 90s music greatest moments in sexual liberation. With “You’re Making Me High,” Toni shed any expectations that she was a good, innocent church girl from the South. And she never looked back.

Toni’s chief collaborator, Babyface, in fact did write “High,” but the following track “There’s No Me Without You” was more of what you’d expect of him. The fact that Babyface can write an R&B song is not a secret. This song is reminiscent in some ways of Kenny’s own “When Can I See You” in terms of tempo and sound, but it’s a great song for Toni to display the beautiful and rich low tones of her voice. Just further confirmation of the magic the Babyface-Braxton duo could create in the 90s.

The next track on Secrets is of course its centerpiece for many casual fans. There’s always that one song that an artist doesn’t like, but ends up being a favorite for the public and a huge success. “Un-Break My Heart” is it for Toni. Written by Diane Warren and produced by David Foster, this song was presented to LA Reid and Babyface, who immediately felt it was going to be a big hit. Toni has admitted that she wasn’t initially fond of it, but she eventually decided to record it and when it was released as a single, it had an immediate reaction from the public. “Un-Break My Heart” is now widely considered the Toni Braxton record, her signature song. It’s the number that closes her concerts and the song that’s widely associated with her. The soaring production, the dramatic lyrics about a lost love and the pristine vocal performance make it an undisputed Pop classic.

Perhaps a total opposite of “Un-Break My Heart,” is its follow-up in the Secrets track listing, the totally not-Pop “Talking in His Sleep.” With lyrics penned by Toni herself, “Talking in His Sleep” calls to mind the atmosphere of a jazz bar or speakeasy with smoke in the air, cocktails in hand, and a single spotlight on an R&B crooner upon the stage. Here, that crooner is of course Toni. She delivers a half-spoken monologue about her lover who’s talking in his sleep about his infidelity. Musically, it recalls “Seven Whole Days” from her debut, but its lyrics and delivery act as a predecessor to “Just Be a Man About It” from her third album, 2000’s The Heat.  It is a unique standout from the album both in style and quality.

Though, she didn’t stray too far. While Toni found “Un-Break My Heart” to be “very Disney,” well… “How Could an Angel Break My Heart” is perhaps the most Disney moment on Secrets, and is the only other song she co-penned on the album. That doesn’t mean, however, that this song hasn’t become one of her most recognizable songs, and Kenny G’s saxophone feature contributed to making the atmosphere even more magical. Make sure not to miss the music video if you feel like living in a fairytale for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, “Find Me A Man” is probably the weakest link of the album. It just doesn’t feel as inspired as the rest of the tracks do, but it’s still a good song and the good thing about classic albums like this one is that even the tracks that may feel like “fillers” have their strong points. Here, it’s definitely Toni’s vocals that elevate an otherwise by the numbers song and give enough reason not to just skip on to the next one.

Though, it wouldn’t be a bad choice to skip onto the masterpiece that is “Let It Flow.” Lifted from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, “Flow” is yet another classic in Toni’s catalogue. If someone were to ask for a song that defines Babyface’s sound in the 90s, “Let It Flow” would work. If someone were to ask to define Toni Braxton’s sound in the 90s, “Let It Flow” would work. So, similarly, if someone asked for a song that encapsulated 90s R&B in general – “Let It Flow” would work. A rare spot in Toni’s catalogue up until that point, “Let It Flow” was unique in that it was a bit uplifting and inspirational rather than being simply sad, longing and yearning for love lost or unattainable.

However, good habits don’t die easily. Surprisingly, the sensuality of Toni’s voice is fully displayed on “Why Should I Care,” despite being about love gone wrong. It’s one of the best songs Babyface created for her because it combines the sultriness of Toni’s instrument and the unique way she has of delivering a song about heartbreak. Here, she’s completely dismissing an ex lover but totally keeping her composure. This song has some of Babyface’s finest production moments. There’s a certain warmth and richness to the track that he created that just captures you.

And, in fact, Toni and Babyface had captured us for the last four songs, in succession, without the appearance of any other writers or producers. Possibly in a cheeky choice of track listing, the next track, written and produced by R. Kelly, was a literal antithesis to Toni’s work with Babyface – sort of. Before Ne-Yo was “So Sick” in 2006, 1996’s “I Don’t Want To” found Toni not wanting to sing another sad song but in all actuality, that’s what the song turned out to be. While R. Kelly’s style was not very much different from Babyface’s in all honesty, it was different enough to make for yet another standout (and single) from Secrets. 

Indeed, the great thing about this album is that while the majority of it was curated by the same team, there are still some great songs that came from other writers and producers. “I Love Me Some Him” is yet another song on Secrets that doesn’t bear the Babyface signature and yet it’s one of the strongest tracks. It’s so incredibly 90s in its sound and theme that every time you play it, you can’t help but feel nostalgic. This is one of those songs that should never be left out of a throwback playlist for this reason and because, well, it’s always a pleasure to listen to Toni Braxton.

The album of course goes back to its heart on its final performance, “In the Light of Night.” This moody, atmospheric track is the perfect closer and a ballad that encompasses all that makes Toni great. While the album is full of phenomenal vocal performances, it is “Night” that delivers one of the most impressive of the set and maybe Toni’s career. The song flows on as if its the musical equivalent of a Shakespearian masterpiece. It builds and builds in emotion, tempo, instrumentation and vocal escalations all the while somehow remaining within the realm of “Quiet Storm” territory. And, really, that is a place Toni and Babyface can claim to be King and Queen. “In the Late of Night” could be considered their coronation song, and it would be wonderful to see them perform it together as a duet somehow.

While Toni’s debut introduced us to their Braxton-Babyface tag team, it was Secrets that proved they were a force to be reckoned with. It was unfortunate that it took nearly 18 years and the threat of Toni’s retirement to see them fully reunite once again on Love, Marriage and Divorce, but it was glorious. However, Secrets should best be remembered not for the union that was Toni and Kenny. No, it should be remembered for cementing the place of one of R&B’s greatest voices into the memories of the masses. After Secrets, it became no secret that Toni Braxton is one of the best; and the fact that we are still lauding her twenty years later proves that secrets are uniquely unforgettable, as is Toni Braxton, as are her Secrets.

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