Toni Braxton used to terrify me. As a kid, the only time I could watch R-rated horror films was when my mom's friend, Lisa, babysat me — not because she attempted to warp my impressionable mind, but because her method of babysitting was to stick me with her older son and let him put in whatever movie he felt like watching while she cooked, cleaned, or chilled in her room listening to her favorite music. There I was, a 7-year-old, in the process of being frightened by Freddy Krueger, when I heard the faint echoes of Toni Braxton coming from Lisa's bedroom. For years after that summer, I got a cold sweat every time I heard "Breathe Again" on the radio and Toni rasped, "I promise you that I shall never breathe again."
It wasn't until well into college, when I purchased the entire Nightmare on Elm Street collection on DVD, that I realized she wasn't even on the damn soundtrack. I somehow expected "Breathe Again" to play over the opening credits — that's how much those early memories of her first LP have stuck with me since it debuted 23 years ago this week.
Her first solo song, "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," while included on the album, was recorded for the Boomerang soundtrack after a pregnant Anita Baker passed on it. Inspired by the film's scene where Halle Berry tears into Eddie Murphy and says, "Love shoulda brought your ass home last night," it was Toni firing shots at the music industry. Without this brand of here's-the-tea R&B, you'd have no Brandy, no Keyshia Cole, no K. Michelle. The video, where she was decked out in a men's dress suit, became Toni's calling card for her personal style. When Toni Braxton arrived on July 13, 1993, the cover featured her fresh-faced with a pixie haircut, denim jeans, a white tank top, and a leather jacket sliding down her shoulders like an S.E. Hinton character. This was a vision of alluring femininity with a hard edge that fit her deep, raspy voice. She was going to give you R&B, but she wasn't about to take any of your shit.
By the time her first official single, "Another Sad Love Song," dropped, she'd perfected that look. The dreamy, black-and-white video features her singing to images of a failed relationship. For Toni, the experience of heartache was like watching a horror movie on repeat. But we watch scary movies because they give us catharsis, allow us to scare ourselves into releasing all of our emotions at once. In turn, that's how Toni's debut album operates — it's the driving force behind her pain at "another sad love song rackin' [her] brain," or scolding a lover for a week of wondering where the hell he's been on "Seven Whole Days."
At the end of a horror movie, the killer is never dead. There's always one final scare. Though there might be songs like "You Mean the World to Me" on her debut, Toni is still horrified that heartache will creep up on her again. It's why the album ends with "Breathe Again," and maybe that's why it was associated with Elm Street for so long in my mind. Toni is the ultimate horror movie final girl, triumphing over heartache like she's vanquishing Freddy Krueger. But just like with a final girl, we can't wait until that nightmare creeps back up so she can slay it again.