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POP MUSIC

Taking a Deep Breath, Again

Toni Braxton has a new look (long, luxuriant hair) and a new attitude (sizzling frankness) that could raise some eyebrows. So how will her fans react to the changes?

June 16, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Toni Braxton not only has one of the great voices in modern pop, but she's also got a good sense of humor.

When a security guard recently failed to recognize her at the entrance to the gated community where Braxton lives in Atlanta, the singer didn't fly into a diva-like temperamental rage.

Instead, she laughed.

Given Braxton's dramatic new look in her latest video, even some of the biggest fans of her first album might have trouble recognizing her.

"The guard asked who I was, and when I told her, she didn't believe me," Braxton says, recalling the incident good-naturedly. "She called the front office and said, 'This woman says she's Toni Braxton, but she doesn't look anything like Toni Braxton.' "

The most obvious difference between Braxton today and three years ago, when her debut album established her as one of the most dynamic R&B singers since Aretha Franklin, is a series of hair extensions that contrast sharply with the closely cropped style that was her early trademark.

"Oh, you mean my 'bought' hair?" she says with a chuckle as she pulls at a few of the untwisted curls that swing near her shoulders. "You too can have this for $1,200. I'm comfortable about it, so I don't have any qualms in talking about it."

Beyond that, however, there's a new aura around this 28-year-old Grammy winner, whose second album, "Secrets," will be released Tuesday. (See review, Page 69.)

And it's easy to spot as she sits in a spacious, oceanfront suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Dana Point. The unassuming star of 1993 now radiates the confidence and glamour of a starlet.

Where Braxton seemed most convincing the first time out in songs, such as "Seven Whole Days" and "Breathe Again," where she was a victim of romance, she now injects key songs on "Secrets" with a bold, sometimes demanding attitude.

In "You're Makin' Me High," her new hit single, she speaks about sexual desire and masturbation in such erotic terms that the record could raise a few eyebrows among radio listeners.

Even Braxton, the daughter of a minister, may have flinched the first time she heard the song, which was co-written by Babyface and Groove Theory's Bryce Wilson.

"At first, I was nervous about singing like that," Braxton admits about the erotic, slow-winding dance song. "I'm very comfortable with my sexuality, but the lyrics in that song are so overt. There were times when I was singing it when I felt I was letting the whole world know my thoughts about that subject."

The fact that Braxton would step into new territory underscores her growing ambition and determination.

"The goal for this album was not only to grow musically, but also offer sides of Toni that no one has ever seen," says Babyface, who wrote and produced much of the material on the new album. "Toni has a unique emotion that's all her own."

Tight, revealing clothes make up an important part of Toni Michelle Braxton's new pop image, but there was a time back in her native Maryland when the future pop star couldn't wear makeup, nail polish, sandals or even pants.

The oldest daughter of Michael and Evelyn Braxton, she was raised in the Apostolic faith, which advises its members to shun popular culture of any sort, including Disney movies.

"I pretty much missed the '70s," says Braxton, who admits with a chuckle that she saw "Star Wars" only a few years ago and was introduced to most old funk classics after they were sampled in recent years by hip-hop producers. "My younger sisters, who were too young to remember anything about that time, think that I'm joking about it."

Just before Braxton entered her teens, her parents switched to a less stringent United Methodist church. Even then, however, she was prohibited from going to parties or dances where she might be exposed to unacceptable music. She was allowed to listen to secular music only at home--and at low volume.

About the only exception was on those Saturday mornings when her parents went shopping, thus affording Braxton and her siblings a chance to sneak a peek at "Soul Train" on TV.

By this time, Braxton--whose mother loved music and once studied opera--had been singing in church choirs for almost five years. It was enough to convince the youngster that she wanted to be a professional singer.

"I don't remember the songs, but I remember the feelings the music gave me," says Braxton, whose manner is refreshingly nonchalant. "I knew immediately that it was something that I wanted to do."

The teen-age Braxton's deep, husky voice was often too low to sing the songs she would occasionally hear on the radio so she ended up modeling her voice after male pop singers such as Luther Vandross and Michael McDonald. It was eventually easy, she says, making the transition from gospel to pop.

"There's nothing new under the sun," Braxton says. "When I listen to Elton John, I hear a lot of church hymns in his music. If you learn those, you can play anything, because the chords are fundamental."

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