Being a lifelong collector of music, I have a term for artists who release a great deal of average albums but have a stellar string of hits: ”Greatest Hitsable”. One such artist is Toni Braxton. The husky-voiced R&B diva has released five studio albums. None of the five are bad, but none of the five are great, either. Usually, her albums consist of 4 or 5 fantastic songs surrounded by filler. A solid hits compilation that does a good job of cutting the wheat from the chaff is all anyone needs by Toni.
This is no excuse for the fact that The Essential Toni Braxton is the fourth hits compilation to come from Arista, Braxton’s first label and the company for which she released four of her five albums. There’s a full-length single disc album, an abridged (and cheaper) version of that album, a collection that specializes on her dance remixes, and now this double-disc set which, at 32 tracks, renders almost all of her studio efforts completely useless.
It’s hard to imagine why this album was even released. Generally, when a former label rolls out a compilation, it’s either because the artist has just cut ties with the label (Braxton parted ways with Arista three years ago), because the artist has passed away (Braxton is very much alive), or has undergone a sudden resurgence in their career (2005’s Libra quietly went Gold, she settled into a Vegas residency a year or so ago, and the only recent Braxton news results from yet another lawsuit by the litigation-friendly singer, this one to get out of her current label situation with Blackground Records). At any rate, it’s here, and while it’s a nice thing to have, it’s by no means essential.
Braxton arrived on the scene in 1992 as the first solo female artist signed to LA Reid & Babyface’s LaFace record label. She was immediately positioned as the comfortable midpoint between streetwise singers like Mary J. Blige and grande dames like Anita Baker & Whitney Houston. With the benefit of girl-next-door lyrics and excellent songs from Babyface, Braxton collected hit singles and Grammys like hotcakes. Her other calling card was her reliance on modern-day torch songs. After her initial breakout with the peppy New Jack duet with Babyface “Give U My Heart”, she went on a run with song after song about no good men, from the smoldering “Another Sad Love Song” to the acoustic-laced ballads “Let It Flow” and “There’s No Mean Without You”. While the downbeat tracks cast her in a sympathetic light (as did her later bankruptcy filing), her biggest hits seemed to be songs where she overdid the theatrics, such as the hushed “Breathe Again” and the grandiose “Un-Break My Heart”, which features songwriter Diane Warren and producer David Foster at their worst.
As Braxton’s career progressed, she made some good and bad decisions. She developed a seductive side (to go with recently acquired hair extensions and breast implants) and used it to her advantage on songs like the sleazy, minimalist funk of “You’re Makin’ Me High”. She also decided to dip a toe into the waters of hip-hop/R&B, and the results there were mixed. Braxton and Left Eye Lopes make a cute tag team on the playful “Gimme Some”, but the train derails when she teams up with the Cash Money crew on “Give It Back”. Singing lines like “give my uh-uh back” makes Braxton sound like she’s desperate to make nice with a Beyonce-age audience. Granted, duets with the likes of Kenny G. and Il Divo prove that she shouldn’t be going terribly far in the opposite direction either.
This compilation contains just about every popular note Braxton ever offered, with a couple of mediocre dance mixes thrown in to add a bit of value to the project. A version of Braxton’s pre-success single as part of a sister group (The Braxtons) is cute in a “how cute” kinda way. The “previously unreleased” “The Little Things” isn’t previously unreleased, as it appeared on The Ultimate Toni Braxton compilation that came out in 2003. As a single disc containing all the necessary hits, it’s the album you should probably bypass this bloated Essential set in favor of.