“Please understand if love ends then I promise you, I promise you, that I shall never breathe again.”
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart. Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.
002] Toni Braxton – Breathe Again
Reached #2: 5th February 1994
Weeks at #2: 2
The story of Black music – or, as it was then reductively and racially-coded, “Urban music” – throughout the 1990s primarily exists in two parallel narrative strands: the rise and evolution of Gangsta Rap and its offshoots (mostly pertaining to the monolithic Bad Boy Records), and the gradual dominance of upstart label LaFace Records. Despite the fact that both strands couldn’t have been further apart from each other in terms of musical intent and vibe, even with LaFace’s rolodex featuring little-known rap groups Outkast and Goodie Mob, they nonetheless set about forcibly reshaping the face of Pop music across America to their own desires. Gangsta Rap, mainly thanks to the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy knowing the power of shameless Pop song samples, gradually sanded down its edges to become a non-stop aspirational luxury genre that could bum-rush the charts whilst still carrying a veneer of danger that allowed even suburban White America to tourist their way through street lifestyles. LaFace, meanwhile, took the ball that Dangerous-era Michael Jackson set-up and sprinted through barriers for dear life, effectively codifying the sound of R&B for the remainder of the decade by alternately emphasising the Pop DNA in the fast-fading New Jack Swing sound or taking overwrought Adult Contemporary ballads of the 80s and injecting them with pulses, emotions, and vocalists who could actually sing.
Befitting our nation’s… iffy history with race relations – plus, it must be admitted, the geographical barriers put up by our pre-Internet age causing an understandable divide in what the popular sounds of different countries were – neither movement managed to properly crossover into the UK. Britpop consumed the middle of the decade, boybands and girl groups clung onto the last few years, and the lucky Dance tunes to break out of the underground, plus ever reliable novelty hits, shored up most of the gaps. But this is not to say that they didn’t leave major footprints regardless. The LaFace sound, in particular, arguably sent just as big a series of shockwaves through the British music industry and Pop charts as the Max Martin Swedish Pop template embodied by artists like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears would at the decade’s tail-end. All Saints’ debut record, even with its obvious debts to the British Trip Hop genre, swims in the influence of mid-90s American R&B. “Return of the Mack” was a #1 smash for British-born Mark Morrison yet is a remarkable aping of American chart music, ditto Shola Ama’s brief bothering of the mainstream. Whilst LaFace’s crown jewel signing TLC – who, inexplicably, we shall not be covering at any point in this series; “Waterfalls” peaked at #4, “No Scrubs” at #3, and both would have been undeniable 5s – had the goddamn Spice Girls desperately biting their sound by the end of their life-span, and set the stage for the ascent of Destiny’s Child (and resultantly the biggest Pop star of the next two decades).
But before all of that, before the seemingly-endless platinum records, before P!nk’s 20 UK Top 10 singles, before one half of Outkast penned an inescapable and misunderstood wedding disco staple, before the label was completely acquired by its partner Arista Records, before TLC dropped a make-or-break classic sophomore LP, and before Usher Raymond IV unassumingly introduced himself to the world… there was Toni Braxton.
Born in Maryland to a Methodist clergyman father and a former opera singing pastor mother, Toni Michelle Braxton’s story is very much in line with many other Black singers who broke through into Pop stardom. The eldest of six, with one brother and four sisters, she got her musical start singing in a group with her siblings at home and performing as part of their local church choir due to their strictly religious household, although the parents would relax their restrictions on secular music as time went on leading to obsessions with Soul Train and Luther Vandross. She then attended university to obtain a teaching degree only for a chance encounter with Bill Pettaway, who’d at the time written hits for Milli Vanilli, at a gas station to land her and the rest of The Braxtons a record contract with Arista. (The myth goes that Pettaway heard her singing to herself whilst pumping gas and signed her immediately. The reality, according to Toni, is that he simply recognised her from local performances whilst she was working there and introduced himself to her.) The quintet of Braxtons released a single in 1990, “Good Life,” that performed miserably on the charts and got them quickly dropped by the label but caught the attentions of Anthony “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the co-founders of LaFace, who soon signed Toni as a solo artist – the other Braxton siblings were left out in the cold, supposedly because LaFace had just signed TLC and hit their quota of girl groups – and the rest is history.
“Good Life” is a solid enough slice of late-80s mid-tempo R&B, but those opening 20 seconds of Toni tearing into the full first verse are indisputable evidence that Reid and Babyface made the right call in singling out her for stardom. Her vocals have a diva-house level intensity reflective of somebody who has been to the absolute lowest emotional depths one can sink to only to scratch and claw their way back out the other side determined to reach the good life. Even with some show-off-y vocal runs and trills peppered throughout, the emotion is palpable or, at least, convincing and it’s a performance completely unworthy of the song that follows it yet lifts the track up a few notches regardless. Combined with her first solo single being a cut from a movie soundtrack – “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” from the 1992 Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang – her ascent was effectively assured. Personalities this strong bust through almost any barrier and when combined with Babyface’s big coming-out party as a writer and producer of solid gold hits (he’s credited on almost half of Braxton’s self-titled 1993 debut) that’s how you get “Breathe Again.”
It’s hard to listen to “Breathe Again” with completely fresh ears in 2019 since this specific R&B sound, which as mentioned owed a heavy debt to the much-derided Adult Contemporary genre, would soon be everywhere throughout the 90s (and famously lambasted by a stream-of-consciousness RZA on Wu-Tang Forever). On a cursory listen, the only thing that separates this from last week’s “All for Love” is the fact that Toni Braxton’s voice doesn’t sound like a man who’s having LEGO bricks hammered into his bare toes. But even putting aside Braxton entirely for the moment, Reid and Babyface (plus their vital frequent collaborator Daryl Simmons) craft a surprisingly effective and subtly distinct soundscape for her to work within. Inarguably, they abuse that descending wind chimes effect like it owes them money, but the chimes also constantly tinkle throughout the song like a percussive instrument as if marking the passage of time, this fear of Braxton’s lover potentially leaving her weighing painfully on the mind and driving her to the point of mental collapse. The softly-plucked guitar in the background is trying to help her fixate on the romance of the here-and-now, but the minor-key synth-strings almost swallow that guitar whole and the drum programming is trapping her deep in her feelings. It’s a beat that, in stark contrast to the bland anonymity of most Adult Contemporary, aches with emotion, blowing up an insular ballad into something widescreen.
But this is Toni’s show through and through. “Good Life” was three years prior to “Breathe Again” but you can already hear a massive evolution in control and modulation from her on this track. Rather than bodying the song with more force than is required, she instead meets the subdued backing on its level and lets the threat of her bursting into histrionics bubble constantly under the surface, again reflecting the narrator’s paranoia and terror over the possibility of a life without this relationship. She’s controlled throughout the choruses – a chorus which the song immediately slams into because this was Pop R&B in the mid-90s, a genre that subscribed religiously to the mantra “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” – but always delivers the title phrase with an exhaling resignation that sounds like a stomach drop at the entire concept, and builds through the verses to climaxes that invoke choked-back tears. After all, by her own admission in the lyrics, she just can’t stop thinking about the idea. So much history is conveyed through that vocal performance, of a string of failed relationships beforehand she insists on being unable to remember but whose wounds are evidently still fresh and fostering major trust issues. Capped off with one last exhale as all the other instruments drop away like a curtain closing on a play.
Much of Toni Braxton the album deals in downtempo ballads about heartbreak and infidelity, ironically with opener (and official lead single) “Another Sad Love Song” being one of the record’s liveliest tracks, which thanks to the specific mood and of-the-era production eventually starts blurring together when digested in full, even at a runtime of 53 minutes across 12 tracks. Yet “Breathe Again” manages to stand out in spite of that fact, something Reid and Babyface clearly understood given that the album ends with a goddamn “(Reprise).” It has a specificity that guts, a melody whose initial wordiness and complexity quickly reveals itself to be enviously simple and easy to remember, and a production that luxuriates rather than wallows or overindulges. This was the song which set Toni Braxton up for superstardom, deservedly so, although it would take until her next album cycle for her to, at least briefly, become inescapable – and for this seemingly heartwarming fairy tale story to take a depressing yet wholly expected turn. But people were listening. You’d better believe people were listening.
Bonus Beats: Whilst most of the notable “Breathe Again” covers are uninspired, super-faithful and super-lame late-90s Smooth Jazz versions (that other recurring cancer on the American Pop landscape throughout the decade), Margot B.’s largely-faithful but slightly-tweaked take from her 2006 covers album Margot B. Inspired deserves credit for not being absolutely painful to sit through. It’s also pretty decent in its own right.
The #1: As with “All for Love,” “Breathe Again”’s two weeks in the runner-up slot were the result of “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:REAM finishing up its four week run at the top. It’s still a 3.
Five-Star Flops: Re-debuting on the charts at #16 during “Breathe Again”’s second week in second place was The Cranberries’ “Linger,” which would eventually peak at #14 the week after. Befitting this addendum, it would have been a 5. (Their highest chart peaks would be 1996’s “Salvation” and 1999’s “Promises,” both topping out at #13.)
A new instalment of We’re #2! will be posted every week.
Callum Petch is in so deep, you know he’s such a fool for you.