Toni Braxton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds worked together in 1992 when they sang “Give U My Heart” a hit single from the soundtrack album to “Boomerang,” an Eddie Murphy film. As solo artists, they’ve won 16 Grammys – six for Braxton, 10 for Edmonds. They reunited in 2013 to record the extraordinary “Love, Marriage & Divorce.”
The recording’s subject as well as its unified narrative flow was revealed by its title, and the artists involved suggested its style: lush, romantic ballads presented flawlessly with arrangements and orchestrations. Edmonds was at the heart of the instrumentation, playing guitar, keyboards and bass as well as programming the synthesized percussion. Antonio Dixon and Daryl Simmons contributed compositions and production. Demonté Posey was responsible for the gorgeous string arrangements. Possessing voices that moved easily between pop and soul, Braxton and Edmonds put their public personas aside to take on the mantles of the characters.
“Love, Marriage & Divorce” was a tale that respected the listeners’ ability to read between the lines and fill in the backstory. In the opening track, “Roller Coaster,” Edmonds sang: “Girl, I was done, I was so through with you/But I know I couldn’t love nobody else.” Braxton responded: “I need you, can’t stand you/I want you, but damn you.” For the couple, peace came in the form of lovemaking: “So if you really want to fight/We can take it to the bed tonight…Be the best fight you ever had,” they sang in “Sweat.” A samba-like beat propelled the swinging pop music that accompanied the love war.
As if inevitable, the story turned. In the piano ballad, Braxton’s character has cheated and, though he has cheated too, Edmonds’ character was stung. “God knows I never meant to hurt you,” they sang, earnestly yet with a trace of self-deceit. Edmonds’ acoustic guitar, familiar to pop and soft-rock fans since the mid-‘80s, opened “Where Did We Go Wrong” and remained the song’s centerpiece as they both asked: “Is it all my fault?” By then, agony was on the surface.
There was a momentary reprise on “I Hope That You’re Okay,” but in “I Wish,” which opens as a stately love ballad, the fury simmering in Braxton’s character was exposed. The juxtaposition of the lovely music and the harsh lyrics was shocking. “I hope she gives you a disease…But not enough to make you die,” sang Braxton, who was the only voice on the track. “I hope she creeps on you with somebody who’s 22/I swear to God I’m gonna be laughing at you every day.” But the truth of the confessional was found in another verse: “I pray she brings you to your knees so you’ll come back to me.” It was a bravura performance by Braxton, who lent her character dignity even as she was falling apart.
Given the occasionally banality of pop culture, listeners may have cringed at the thought that a cloying happy ending would be tacked on to “Love, Marriage & Divorce.” In the bouncy ballad “Take It Back” and “Reunited,” reconciliation was considered – “I want to be with my wife again,” Edmonds’ character sang in the latter – but the frayed couple realized there was no turning back. In the perfectly served “I’d Rather Be Broke,” Braxton’s character gathered the strength to move on.
The ending was upbeat and entirely believable. In the dance tune “Heart Attack,” the characters met by accident when he was with another woman. Braxton’s character recognized the look in his eyes: He knew what he had lost. Edmonds sang the finale, “The D Word,” in which he, defeated and forlorn, dropped the divorce papers on her doorstep.
“Love, Marriage & Divorce” was a triumphant return to recording for Braxton and Edmonds: It was her first album in four years and his first in seven. Launched in time for Valentine’s Day 2014, it sold well and went on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Album. Dreamy, bittersweet and subtle, it was, and remains, a quintessential album for grownups: You have to have lived a while to understand the nuances and the unspoken subtext of the tale. Braxton and Edmonds proved expert guide into and through love’s battlefield in a recording that balanced its wisdom and emotions to a highly effective, provocative end.