Blackground Records, founded in the early ‘90s and formerly operated by Barry Hankerson and Jomo Hankerson, has a bad reputation. Apart from the fact that the nomadic label has had a revolving door of distributors (Jive, Atlantic, Virgin, and Universal), Blackground, particularly the former owner Barry, is notoriously known for the hostage of idolized records by his late niece and global superstar Aaliyah. While Barry’s unclear decision not to release Aaliyah’s beloved catalog to streaming and digital retailers is met with an iron hand, her music isn’t the only one at his gripping mercy. Albums from super-producer Timbaland to Tank to JoJo to Toni Braxton have been sealed in an airtight vault from most online platforms.
Braxton, who joined the Blackground Records roster in 2003 after reports of disappointment in her longtime label home Artista for the lack of promotion and enforced sonic direction of 2002’s More Than a Woman, recorded one album for the now-folded label: Libra. The record was released on September 27, 2005, and came with its own backstory of recording drama. According to Barry, who said the initial album submitted, which was done primarily with her frequent collaborator and then-husband Keri Lewis, didn’t have the commercial quality to it.
Giving constructive feedback from Universal and their other global partners, Braxton was ordered back to the studio to produce fresher material for what would be her first album in three years. She admitted to The Baltimore Sun ahead of Libra’s release that she found it “hard at first” to modernize her famous sound. Though she wished her signature downtempo DNA was more embedded in the material, she was at least pleased with the finished product.
Fifteen years later, Braxton remains seemingly content with the result of Libra. When asked recently in a Twitter Q&A, fittingly called #AskToni, which of her albums she felt deserved more recognition, Braxton responded with the title of her 2005 album. And she is absolutely right; Libra is one of her most criminally underrated albums.
— Toni Braxton (@tonibraxton) September 2, 2020
Praising Braxton as a living legend isn’t an overdramatic assessment to diehard fans or true R&B enthusiasts. Such recognition may cause a brave observer, who doesn’t have full access to the complete discography, to challenge it, especially those commenting that she can’t compete in a Verzuz against Mariah Carey or Mary J. Blige. And for this reason, Braxton’s Libra is rightfully deserving to be heard in the future by the masses on their preferred terms, whether they purchase the album at digital music stores or listen to it through streaming services.
To Braxton’s credit, the most audacious albums of her nearly three-decade career were released during the 2000s. She has The Heat, her forward-looking album of 2000, to thank for challenging her sense of artistic taste and testing the limits of what future Toni Braxton albums would sound like.
Take “Please,” the album opener and lead single. The bold and domineering approach of the testy track, assembled by sought-after hitmaker Scott Storch, bears a striking resemblance to her Grammy-winning hit “He Wasn’t Man Enough” from the 2001 Best R&B Album contender. But its core is rooted in a messy subject matter aimed at an envious woman who is far too interested in the business of Braxton and her man. Against sharp violins and a thumping bass line, Braxton makes it known that she isn’t one to start a problem, but she doesn’t mind finishing it, especially when it comes to her man. Even the music video for “Please” salutes the dance break of its feisty predecessor.
In retrospect, Amerie has proven to be an influential artist in her own right; after the masterful go-go drums and blended horns crafted by producer Rich Harrison steered her most memorable work, as well as other female R&B and pop stars. The brisk impact of the two collaborators pops up on the night-out groove “Take This Ring Off.” The genre-hopping highlight is billed as the ultimate bluffer for women who don’t want to give up on their marriage but have to remind their unappreciative men it’s an option, even if it’s for one night.
Where the five Ws and how are referenced on the vow-abiding gem “Never for a Ring” from The Heat, “Take This Ring Off,” which is akin to Amerie’s hit “1 Thing,” puts Braxton’s band in her jewelry box for safekeeping until she decides her man has suffered enough. But the biggest selling point of the energetic track is Tamar Braxton’s skillful background vocals.
Braxton’s greatest strength is her storytelling, especially when it comes to her interrogative compositions involving female characters. “Midnite” is a modern hip-hop soul record about the true whereabouts of a wily lover. Tamar again helps out in the dark shadows of the Soulshock & Karlin-produced cut, as Braxton prompts her naïve girlfriend to dip on her man in the ninja Honda like Tanisha and Rhonda.
“I Wanna Be (Your Baby)” and “Stupid” are tributes to the inescapable classics that make up Braxton’s solid catalog. While the lite-jazz of the latter has Braxton smacking herself upside the head, it’s also the perfect tune stylistically to get her name on the marquee of an authentic jazz club. Meanwhile, Braxton lists off the titles of some of her most beloved songs (“Breathe Again,” “Unbreak My Heart”) in “Finally,” a sultry midtempo where she rejoices about finding the long-awaited love of her life.
The fact that the album’s second single “Trippin’ (That’s the Way Love Works)” didn’t put Braxton in the rebirth ranks like two of her fellow ‘90s soul sisters in 2005 is quite absurd. As faint police sirens and steady piano notes follow the husky singular voice of Braxton, she, along with the songwriting support of Johntá Austin, Bryan-Michael Cox, and Kendrick “WyldCard” Dean, communicate the challenges of maintaining a romantic relationship.
Clearly, the distressing sirens in the song’s backdrop indicate the sometimes unfortunate results of an argument between lovers. It’s the same mélange of relatable lyricism weaved in mega-hits like “We Belong Together” and “Be Without You, both co-written by Cox and Austin, that should have soared “Trippin’” to the top of the R&B radio charts. Braxton even brings the Twista-esque rap/sung aesthetic she adopted on her 2000 album.
It’s no question that the gold-selling Libra deserves to be treasured as the masterpiece that it is. Going off the enormous fan response under the #AskToni post regarding Libra, it’s clear that Braxton, as well as fans and critics alike, want to see justice for this unappreciated album. Regardless of the circumstance behind the making and post-release of Libra, and everything else in between, Barry should look at the bigger picture and put the notably absent record onto digital music outlets and streaming platforms.
At one point, he recognized Braxton as “one of the most distinctive and powerful voices to come out in the last 25-30 years.” Sure wish those once-uttered words would convince him to finally upload Libra and let the world witness its greatness.