Kenny Edmonds, Toni Braxton: Rhythm and blues, with life’s bruises
Toni Braxton and Kenny Edmonds have history together as soul-music hit makers, which in the record industry is usually reason enough to rejoin forces.
In the 1990s he wrote and produced large chunks of her first two albums, both blockbusters with combined sales of more than 16 million copies; the discs spawned five top 10 singles, including “You’re Makin’ Me High” and “Breathe Again,” and earned three Grammy Awards for female R&B; vocal performance.
So although their careers later diverged — Braxton took up with other collaborators and began acting, while Edmonds (known as Babyface) made his own records and helped create huge songs for everyone from Eric Clapton to Beyoncé — the pair “always thought about working together again,” Edmonds said recently.
“But we needed an idea,” he went on, “something more than, ‘Ooh, if we get together and make an album, it’ll be hot.’”
They found inspiration in real life. On “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” their strong new duo album, Braxton and Babyface ponder the vagaries of grown-up romance in unflinching, sometimes brutal detail. Both divorced, the stars pulled from their own experiences for songs that dig beneath did-me-wrong drama and slick sex talk.
Yet as true to themselves as they sought to keep the music, the result also feels designed to serve an often-neglected audience: middle-aged R&B; fans.
“Toni and Kenny are really singing their truth on this album,” said Stephen Hill, an executive at BET. “They understand where they are in their lives and what they’ve been through, and I think they’re aiming this record toward people who’ve grown with them.”
For Braxton, 46, the prospect of getting personal — and of teaming again with Edmonds — led her to reverse a decision she’d made last year to quit music after several coolly received albums in which, she said, she felt decreasingly involved.
“I wasn’t using my voice — I was using the voice others told me to use,” she said. Dressed in a black off-the-shoulder sweater, the singer was seated with Edmonds, 54, during a break from shooting “Braxton Family Values,” the We TV reality series she stars in with her four sisters and their mother. (Before she entered reality TV, Braxton appeared in films including “Kingdom Come” and played Belle on Broadway in “Beauty and the Beast.”)
“When you’re making one album after the next, like she was, sometimes you get to the point where you’re just trying to make a hit, as opposed to really saying anything,” Edmonds said. “She didn’t know how to get back to it.”
“It was a dark period,” said Braxton, who famously filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and again in 2010. “But Kenny was the person who snapped me out of it. He said, ‘Toni, you’re forgetting you’re an artist. Stop being a business manager and tell people your story.’”
The album, released Tuesday, sets frank reflections against the soft-edged arrangements for which Babyface is known. In “The D Word” he describes dropping divorce papers on his wife’s doorstep, while Braxton curtly dismisses a well-to-do lover in the shimmering “I’d Rather Be Broke.” (“Than with you” are the next three words in the song’s chorus.)
Some of the songs, Braxton said, were born from casual conversations. “We’d go in the studio and he’d just let me vent,” she recalled. “Then the next day he’d say, ‘That thing you were taking about — let’s write about that.’”
As an example she pointed to “I Wish,” a disarmingly pretty piano ballad with lyrics that Braxton said had been inspired by things she’d heard her mother tell her father during her parents’ divorce.
“I hope she gives you a disease so that you will see,” she sings, “Not enough to make you die/ But only make you cry like you did to me.”
“I might’ve opened up Toni a little bit too much,” Edmonds said with a laugh.
“He did!” Braxton said. “The monster’s out now, baby.”
Both singers acknowledged that the subject matter on “Love, Marriage & Divorce” — not to mention its plush textures and unhurried tempos — distinguish the project from, say, “Talk Dirty,” the boisterous single by Jason Derulo that last week topped Billboard’s R&B; chart.
“Labels are into selling as many records as they can, and for the most part they tend to go younger,” said Edmonds, in a position to know: Beyond his work with Braxton, the producer spent time last year on “Yours Truly,” the hit debut by 20-year-old Ariana Grande.
“There’s nothing for the 35-and-older crowd,” Braxton added with characteristic bluntness.
Yet it’s not just youth that the record industry is after, Edmonds insisted — it’s the quick-fix promise of whatever’s next. “We’re living in a fast-food society,” he said, one without much room for the kind of long-term ideals artists used to live by.
BET’s Hill said that commercial expectations for an album such as this one “have to be adjusted just like Toni and Kenny adjusted [their songwriting perspective]. It’s not about what the record sells in the first week, because more mature folks have other things to do than look at iTunes every day.”
Indeed, Braxton and Babyface — and their label, Motown Records — appear to be playing a long game with the album’s promotion: “Hurt You,” the lead single, hit radio last August, and the two have tentative plans to tour together in June. (Babyface is to perform his own show Feb. 16 at the Grove of Anaheim, and Braxton is scheduled to play the Nokia Theatre on Feb. 28.)
How precisely those joint concerts will go down hasn’t been decided. But the negotiations sound as if they could be the basis of a song for an album sequel.
“I think I should go first, then him, and then I’ll come back out at the end,” Braxton said. “But he wants to go first too.”
“I don’t want to follow her!” Edmonds exclaimed. “Have you seen Toni Braxton fans?”
“What about Babyface fans?” she replied. “He sings all his songs, then all the songs he’s written for everyone else. I get jealous sometimes.” Braxton turned to her partner. “What’s the last Beyoncé song you did? ‘Best Thing I Never Had’? I was so upset. I called him up, said, ‘Kenny, congratulations, great song. Why’d you give it to her?’”
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