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Toni Braxton Reflects on How R&B Has Changed Since ‘Unbreak My Heart’

Why is R&B back? Because it was missed. Sometimes you want a melody. You want to look in the mirror and sing your heartache away. You can rap about it and that’s great, but there’s nothing like a fabulous R&B hook. 

R&B is ageless, like rock and country — it doesn’t matter how old you are. With hip-hop it’s a little different: You don’t want to be 70 and using the F-word or singing [Rihanna’s] “B—h Better Have My Money,” although maybe some of them will. Of all the girls, Rihanna is probably my favorite — I don’t know if I can see her singing “B—h Better Have My Money” at 70 either, although she might do it especially for me. 

I love Drake. I love SZA. I think H.E.R. is super talented; she’s a real, real vocalist — I’m sorry, is it “H-E-R” or “her”? Is it a pronoun or a noun? [It’s pronounced “her.”] She’s classic but still young and modern. When my first record came out, that’s what they said about me — the topics were a little mature, but my style and approach was younger so that made it current. I think that’s what everyone loves about Adele: She’s young, but her music is classic and [the lyrics] make you think she’s older. 

I’m always listening to other artists when I’m working on an album, and for “Sex & Cigarettes,” I was listening to Beyoncé, channeling her a little bit, and of course Rihanna. I usually listen to singers when I’m working on a ballad, but when I’m doing something a little more up, I want something with energy and vibe and some swag to it, because I can be a laid-back singer, so I need a little swag to help me. Drake, Lil’ Kim — she’s my favorite of all the female rappers — Biggie. My kids love Tupac, so imagine the conversations at home over dinner.

I have always had eyebrow-raising lyrics in my songs, but you couldn’t understand them — on “Sex & Cigatettes,” you can understand them [especially on “FOH” — F- Outta Here]. I always say to ladies, sometimes there is no other word but the F-word. You can still be a lady and say the F-word, but sometimes even the ladiest of the ladies have to say it. I don’t use the F-word a lot, but I sing it in my show, and it always gets a great response because women understand it. 

It’s interesting, because I’d consider some of [the newer R&B artists] more hip-hop, and I’m not sure why hip-hop and R&B are so often thought of as being the same category. They’re so different. Some would consider SZA hip-hop — she’s a singer and can sing R&B, but for instance “All the Stars” [SZA’s Grammy-nominated duet with Kendrick Lamar from “Black Panther”] is a hip-hop song. I’ve gotten a couple of hip-hop/R&B awards, and I feel some kind of way about it because I’m definitely R&B! 

— As told to Jem Aswad

Toni Braxton is best known for 1990s hits like “Unbreak My Heart,” “He Wasn’t Man Enough” and “You’re Makin’ Me High,” but over the years the seven-time Grammy winner has appeared on Broadway (as the lead in “Beauty and the Beast”) and become a TV producer and author. In 2018, her singing career came roaring back with the album “Sex & Cigarettes,” which garnered three Grammy nominations. 

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