Often when discussing the elite pack of divas who ruled the ’90s and early aughts, Toni Braxton is cast aside. This shouldn’t be the case — there’s way more to her story than ”Un-Break My Heart.”
Known for her sultry, low-ranging contralto voice, Braxton — who turns 50 this Saturday, Oct. 7 — provided the R&B, pop, and adult contemporary hemispheres with a slew of signature classics. The dramatic flare of these songs, matched with her film noir aesthetic and style, convincingly sold Braxton’s extensive discography centered on the raging emotions of love and heartbreak. The smoothness and mature sophistication in her sound offered a lighter (and calmer) shading to the early waves of hip-hop soul and alternative-R&B that reigned supreme in the ’90s.
Well into the early aughts, Braxton would find herself pairing quiet storm vibes with hip-hop undertones. After an unfortunate dip in mainstream appeal maligned by label issues and personal matters in the mid-00’s (although that period would bring notable deep cuts and plenty more “what could have beens”), Braxton regained her place in the spotlight with a Dancing With The Stars stint, a successful reality TV show alongside her sisters, and a critically-acclaimed reunion album with her mentor Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Now the legend prepares to release her ninth studio album, slated to be released next year, including her current single “Deadwood.”
To celebrate the songstress’ milestone birthday, Billboard ranks the 25 best Toni Braxton songs, including singles and deep cuts.
25. “You Mean The World To Me“ (1993)
After departing from her all-sisters quintet, The Braxtons, the eldest of the girl group embarked on a successful solo career. 1993 saw the arrival of Toni Braxton, a self-titled debut that topped both the Billboard 200 and R&B Albums charts for multiple weeks. As the fourth lead single on the LP, “You Mean The World” reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994, thanks to the soulful swing of the hook dedicated to a cherished lover.
24. “Why Should I Care“ (1996)
Following up her debut with Secrets, Braxton reinvigorated the sound and format of quiet storm with arguably her best album to date. Full of ballads centered on dealing with an unfaithful soulmate, Secrets cemented the legacy of Braxton’s signature blend of mature-R&B with breezy adult contemporary. In this deep cut, the crooner questions why she should care about said partner over a psychedelic guitar riff and synth reminiscent of The Isley Brothers.
23. “Spanish Guitar“ (2000)
Most legends can’t say that their international single became a soundtrack staple for a Brazilian soap opera. Laços de Família would help Braxton’s Latin pop ballad become a mass success in its home country — and ultimately a primary example of Latin music’s influence on mainstream culture.
22. “The Heat“ (2000)
“Spanish Guitar” aptly oozed a sweltering mystique fitting enough for Braxton’s third studio album, The Heat. Also incorporating that magic is the album’s title track, a subtle jaunt working in the sounds of a tropical summer and a light, jazzy groove. No wonder why the ending question is “does anyone want some ice cream?”
Entering the new millennium, Braxton gained more artistic control from LaFace. She also felt a need to strip away some of her balladry and embrace her love of hip-hop á la Mariah Carey’s Butterfly. Braxton’s first LPs of the aughts — The Heat and More Than A Woman — also embraced a sexier, borderline controversial side of the songstress. As the lone single from More Than A Woman, “Freeway” joins a list of notable bangers produced by Pharrell’s launching pad, The Neptunes. And thanks to its Loon co-sign, it also has a Bad Boys Records stamp of approval.
After leaving LaFace Records in 2003, Braxton signed to the record label abyss known as Blackground Records. If you’re familiar with the label’s nightmare stories revolving around Aaliyah and JoJo, it goes without saying that Braxton’s first (and only) album under the label, Libra, didn’t fare well commercially. That being said, the LP contains the singer’s peak unreleased singles and barely-existent promos. The highlight of this particular cut: A comparison of spousal conflict with “12 rounds up inside the [Madison Square] Garden.”
19. “Talking In His Sleep“ (1996)
“Can you keep a secret?” asks the diva throughout the epicenter track of Secrets. Here, she’s confronted by her adulterous lover who accidentally spills his dirty laundry while snoozing. Afflicted by a 70s noir-jazz riff, “Talking” takes a page from Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” balancing a scandalous spoken word narrative with a seductive hook.
It’d take five years after Libra — and a release from Blackground Records — for Braxton to deliver her next studio album. Serving as the first single from Pulse, the singer gets over her ex (played by Trey Songz on deluxe versions) by labeling him a day of the past. “Yesterday” served as a testament to how Braxton manages to maintain her signature blend of genre formats years after her higher charting moments.
17. “Hurt You“ feat. Babyface (2014)
When Braxton started her singing career in 1989, Babyface became an integral component of her artistry. After going through separate divorces, the duo partnered up for the Grammy-winning concept album Love, Marriage, and Divorce, featuring this apology ballad that topped the Adult R&B Songs chart.
16. “Midnite“ (2005)
This cut from Libra perfectly captures Braxton’s ability to cruise along with the stripped melodic structuring of her songs. Her ad-libs and riffs shine throughout “Midnite,” making it a pleasant earworm in her deeper catalogue.
15. “Love Shoulda Brought You Home“ (1992)
Although “Give U My Heart” — a duet with Babyface — is credited as Braxton’s official single debut, “Love” receives the honor of her first solo effort. Both songs appeared on the Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang, but “Love” would be regarded as the favorite thanks to Braxton’s powerhouse vocal control and dexterity.
14. “How Many Ways“ (1993)
Released as a single in 1994, “How Many Ways” adequately reflects the finalization of new jack swing and the emerging popularity of its brethren, hip-hop soul. The soulful declaration — co-written and produced by Tamar’s future husband Vincent Hubert — sees Braxton recounting various ways she loves her man. The single served opposite to its double-A side, the Whitney Houston-esque “I Belong To You.”
13. “Seven Whole Days” (1993)
Regarded as one of Braxton’s iconic singles, the songstress recalls not knowing her lover’s whereabouts for more than a week. Written and produced by her dream team of Babyface and Darryl Simmons, Braxton’s runs are what impressed listeners the most. She would later revisit the song’s idea, slyly mentioning “going seven whole days without hearing from you,” on “Finally,” Libra‘s semi-mash-up of her most famous lyrics.
12. “Just Be A Man About It” (2000)
Since The Heat was meant to embrace the more progressive sounds of contemporary R&B, Braxton also incorporated a little electro-hop on the album’s second single. With the support of a stormy atmosphere and womanizing voicemail delivered by Dr. Dre, the singer’s hurt vocals shine in yet another convincing performance.
11. “There’s No Me Without You” (1996)
This deep cut earnestly emotes despair and a feeling of defeat after a break-up. Helped by backing vocals of the songwriter, Babyface, this Toni Braxton song’s hook glides with a country twang — the singer adopting the vocal patterns of the genre with a pristine R&B palette.
10. “Take This Ring” (2005)
Imma let you finish Beyoncé, but Toni Braxton had one of the best “Single Ladies” of all time. Three years before we’d receive an official dance and a Spandex-driven anthem from Bey, Braxton released a club banger echoing a similar sentiment. Fortified by a rocking go-go beat — produced by “Crazy In Love” and “1 Thing” hitmaker Rich Harrison — this dose of playboy-repellent serves as a faint reminder of a music moment somewhat ahead of its time.
9. “Sposed To Be“ (2005)
On Libra, “Take This Ring” was the upbeat single deserving more; “Sposed To Be” was the slow jam that could have been more. A great candidate for quiet storm or lovemaking playlists, this deep cut radiates an intergalactic tranquility — and infectious bridge — highlighting the finesse of Braxton’s later discography.
8. “Hands Tied“ (2010)
The second single of Pulse came as another one of Braxton’s sultrier career moments. With an urgent vocal performance, the allure of “Hands Tied” exists in its zephyrous keyboard chords. The song also provided a glimpse into the softer side of Warren “Oak” Felder, who’d go on to produce for Rihanna and Demi Lovato.
7. “Another Sad Love Song“ (1993)
From its opening “oh’s” and “woah’s” over a slinky melody, the first official single from Toni Braxton played on R&B’s knack for providing radio with sad tunes. With an addictive hook “racking [people’s] brains like crazy,” the song reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 and earned a Grammy for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.”
6. “I Love Me Some Him“ (1996)
If R&B radio is unanimously consistent with playing one Toni Braxton single since its release, “I Love Me Some Him” would hold that title for sure. Regarded as one of her signatures, the song was released as a double-A side single to the R. Kelly-penned “I Don’t Want To.” The best part exists at the end of this cosmopolitan ode — Braxton’s vocal harmonizing with the instrumental stealing the show.
5. “Find Me A Man” (1996)
Today, Secrets remains without a skippable track. It also contains the singer’s best deep cut. In terms of essential Toni Braxton, “Find Me A Man” shows the singer’s ability to draw listeners into her raw emotion over a cerebral melody. Here heartbreak reigns as the songstress finds herself tired of being alone, dreaming up the irresistible qualities of her Prince Charming.
4. “Un-Break My Heart“ (1996)
Standing as one of the greatest power ballads to ever exist, this Hot 100 chart-topper is the central song of Braxton’s career. Vibrant in grandiose-theatrics and a heart-wrenching chorus in the midst of vocal acrobatics, “Un-Break My Heart” would sit at the summit for 11 weeks.
3. “Breathe Again” (1993)
As these Toni Braxton songs age, this single from her debut still finds its way on R&B rotation today. Sparkling in Sade-centric balladry and Diane Warren lyrics, the breathy chorus and stagnant verses displayed by Braxton execute the song’s intended moodiness. “Breathe Again” would become a No. 3 hit and earn the singer’s second Grammy win for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.
2. “He Wasn’t Man Enough For Me” (2000)
The new millennium might have seen a new look and sound from the diva, but her anthemic spirit remained fervent. In the league of “No Scrubs” and “Independent Women, Pt. 1,” this song holds its own rightful spot. Produced by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, this signature dance bop was blocked from the Hot 100’s top spot by the stronghold of Carlos Santana and The Product G&B’s “Maria Maria.” Today, it’s revisited by those realizing a past flame couldn’t handle it all.
1. “Let It Flow“ (1996)
Paired alongside “You’re Makin’ Me High,” this double A-side single peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Unlike its partnered uptempo jaunt, “Let It Flow” drifts like a slow-running stream guided by the presence of a hypnotizing guitar. Staying in line with the anthems Braxton has provided prior to and after “Let It Flow,” the song became a mainstay on radio, the Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack, and most importantly Braxton’s performance catalogue. Simply put, “Let It Flow” could have been done by none other than the superstar herself — particularly the mesmerizing ending.