The Number Ones

July 27, 1996

The Number Ones: Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Pop music is about sex. That’s a vast over-generalization, but there are probably more pop songs about sex than about any other subject. (There are plenty of love songs, too, but a lot of those love songs are really sex songs in disguise.) But despite all the millions and millions of songs about sex, it’s hard to write about sex well. A lot of the time, people writing songs about sex can come off like creepy hornballs or like Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin saying that boobs feel like “bags of sand.”

Consider, if you will, this line: “I’ll always think of you inside of my private thoughts/ I can imagine you touching my private parts.” That’s a stupid line! It looks ridiculous on paper! It’s very, very difficult to imagine anyone using that line as a sincere come-on. This one is pretty bad, too: “Can’t get my mind off you/ I think I might be obsessed/ The very thought of you makes me want to get undressed.” But context is everything. If you can find the right singer, even the dumbest sex lines can work.

Toni Braxton was the right singer. Both of those chump-ass lines come from “You’re Makin’ Me High,” Braxton’s first #1 hit, and Braxton sold them. Toni Braxton grew up in a deeply religious household, and she didn’t really want to sing about sex, but she was good at it. Braxton could do all the fluttery melisma runs that were so popular in ’90s R&B, but she would deliver them in a deep, husky alto murmur. She always sounded self-assured and knowing. She sounded like she had her shit together, which is why her songs about romantic devastation were so affecting. But Braxton could also turn just about anything into a torch song, and there’s a beautiful arched-eyebrow playfulness to the way she delivered “You’re Makin’ Me High.” It wasn’t what Toni Braxton sang; it was how she sang it.

Toni Braxton was the oldest of six siblings in a strict Methodist family in suburban Severn, Maryland. Severn isn’t Baltimore, but it’s close enough. Tupac Shakur spent four years in Baltimore as a kid, but I haven’t really gotten a chance to write about a Baltimore native in this column since Billy Griffin replaced Smokey Robinson as the lead singer of the Miracles and took the group to #1 with 1976’s “Love Machine (Part 1).” On behalf of my hometown, I will happily accept Toni Braxton as one of ours. (When Braxton was born, the #1 song in America was the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”)

Braxton’s parents were both pastors. Their father also worked at a power company, and their mother had been trained as an opera singer. Toni loved R&B, but her parents disapproved of the secular, and she only got to sneak episodes of Soul Train when her parents weren’t home. Toni and her four younger sisters harmonized together in church and, later, on the local talent show circuit. Toni went to Maryland’s historically Black Bowie State University, where she studied to become a music teacher. She dropped out when she met the songwriter Bill Pettaway, who’d heard her sing and who wanted to write for her. Pettaway approached Braxton with this idea when she was pumping gas at the Annapolis gas station where Pettaway worked. Amazingly, this did not scare Braxton off.

Bill Pettaway may have been working a gas-station job, but he was also a member of Numarx, a local R&B group. Pettaway had co-written and produced the Numarx single “Girl, You Know It’s True,” which was only just starting to take off in Europe. Soon afterward, Milli Vanilli covered “Girl, You Know It’s True,” and their version eventually became a #2 hit in the US. (The Milli Vanilli version is an 8.) Braxton started recording demos with Pettaway. She and her sisters formed a group called the Braxtons, and they signed with Arista in 1989. The Braxtons’ debut single “Good Life” flopped, grazing the bottom of the Billboard R&B chart and missing the Hot 100 entirely. Almost immediately, Arista dropped the group.

“Good Life” might not have hit, but it did get Toni Braxton noticed by Babyface and LA Reid, who’d just launched their label LaFace as a partnership with Arista. Babyface and Reid weren’t interested in the Braxtons as a group, but they thought Toni could be a solo artist, and they extracted her. Babyface in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “It was a little touchy to go there because she was in a group with her sisters, but we thought that would be the best thing. The family handled it well.” Imagine that conversation.

At LaFace, Toni Braxton started off singing demos. Babyface was putting together the soundtrack for the 1992 Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang, and those efforts would yield the Boyz II Men mega-smash “End Of The Road.” Toni Braxton sang the demo versions for two Boomerang songs, “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” and the Babyface duet “Give U My Heart,” that were initially offered to Anita Baker, the queen of smoothed-out late-’80s R&B. (Anita Baker’s highest-charting single, 1988’s “Giving You The Best That I Got,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.) Depending on who you ask, Anita Baker couldn’t record those songs because she was pregnant or because her label vetoed the soundtrack appearances, and so Braxton’s versions of both songs appeared on the Boomerang soundtrack. “Love Shoulda Brought You Back” became Braxton’s first single, and it peaked at #33 on the Hot 100.

Toni Braxton released her self-titled debut album in the summer of 1993. Babyface and LA Reid produced most of the LP, and it was a huge hit, falling into that slinky early-’90s quiet-storm sweet spot. In a way, Toni Braxton came to occupy the same cultural place that Anita Baker had held a few years earlier, singing the sort of poised and sophisticated R&B ballads that could also get play on adult contemporary radio. Toni Braxton topped the Billboard album charts for a week in early 1994, and it eventually sold eight million copies in the US. Three of the LP’s singles made the top 10, and the biggest of them, the sleek Babyface-written ballad “Breathe Again,” made it to #3. (It’s a 6.)

Secrets, Toni Braxton’s 1996 sophomore album, had big expectations. Braxton teamed up with a bunch of big-star writers and producers on the LP, but Babyface once again handled the bulk of the production. For lead single “You’re Makin’ Me High,” Babyface teamed up with co-writer and co-producer Bryce Wilson. Wilson got his start in 1990, after original rapper MC Tee left the electro-funk group Mantronix. Wilson, calling himself MC Luvah, joined Mantronix as Tee’s replacement in 1989, and he co-wrote “Got To Have Your Love,” the only Mantronix track that ever charted on the Hot 100. (It peaked at #82.)

Mantronix broke up in 1991, and Bryce Wilson teamed up with Amel Larrieux, a singer who worked as a receptionist at a music publishing company, to form a new R&B duo called Groove Theory. Groove Theory only released one album, but that 1995 self-titled LP had a single, the funky glide “Tell Me,” that went gold and peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)

Bryce Wilson came up with the initial version of “Nothing For You” and submitted it to Babyface. Wilson wrote with the music for the track, and Dallas Austin wrote the lyrics, but Babyface didn’t like those lyrics. Babyface brought Bryce Wilson in, and the two of them rewrote the track, turning it into “You’re Makin’ Me High.” I don’t know whether Babyface or Bryce Wilson wrote the bit about “I can imagine you touching my private parts,” but it’s pretty funny to imagine either of them hunching brow-furrowed over a legal pad and coming up with that.

Babyface had decided that Toni Braxton needed to sing sexier songs. Braxton herself wasn’t so sure. In the Bronson book, Babyface says, “She was fighting it a bit. She didn’t know whether she should say those kinds of things. She didn’t want to offend anybody. It was chancy, but it ended up working out.” Personally, I would’ve worried less about offending anyone. Instead, I would’ve been concerned with sounding corny as hell. Maybe corniness isn’t even on Toni Braxton’s radar. Maybe she understands how to de-cornify anything that she sings.

In Toni Braxton’s hands, “You’re Makin’ Me High” doesn’t sound corny. The lyrics are silly, but she underplays them, delivering them in the sort of deep murmur that forces you to focus more on the voice than on the words themselves. “You’re Makin’ Me High” isn’t a ballad; it’s funky midtempo strut. Bryce Wilson programmed the drums on the track, Babyface played guitar, and both of them played keyboard. It’s a sleek, playful track with a little bit of G-funk whine in the synths and a few heavily vocodered voices adding a vaguely futuristic feel. Babyface plays guitar just off the beat, adding these sly little stabs that accentuate the glide. And Toni Braxton just lets her voice float on that beat like a seagull in an updraft.

On “You’re Makin’ My High,” Toni Braxton finds a nice sense of interplay with a team of all-star backup singers. Braxton adds her own multi-tracked voice to “You’re Makin’ Me High,” and she shares backup vocals with Babyface, Chanté Moore, Jakkai Butler, and former Boyz II Men member Marc Nelson. (Chanté Moore’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Chanté’s Got A Man,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. As a member of Az Yet, Marc Nelson got to #8 with a 1997 cover of Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry.” It’s a 5.) Braxton and those backup singers establish a nice little push-pull rhythm on the chorus. Braxton sings about fantasizing about someone, but there’s not too much longing in her voice. Instead, she sounds almost narcotically sated. She’s not worried about urges going unsatisfied. She’s Toni Braxton, so anything that she wants is a sure thing.

“You’re Makin’ Me High” isn’t Toni Braxton’s most purposeful or memorable song, but it’s a nice little demonstration of what she could do. It’s warm and breezy and fun, and it holds up Braxton’s voice as something to be admired. As with so many ’90s R&B tracks, the backup vocals mostly hold down the main melody while Braxton just shows off with her leads, letting that voice soar and dive. But Braxton never goes big on “You’re Makin’ Me High.” Instead, she keeps everything even-keeled. The best moment of “You’re Makin’ Me High” is the bridge, where the vocodered robo-voices warp everything just slightly and where Braxton and the backup singers spend a few seconds just oohing and aahing over the beat. It’s a song about sexual desire hitting like a drug, and in those moments, the track finds its own level of horny psychedelia.

Technically, Braxton’s first #1 hit is a double-sided single. LaFace paired “You’re Makin’ Me High” with “Let It Flow,” the Toni Braxton song from the Babyface-produced Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. “Let It Flow” had already gotten radio play before the single came out, so LaFace made the canny decision to use that song to help build anticipation for Braxton’s Secrets album. Radio play for both songs helped drive “You’re Makin’ Me High” to #1 for a single week. The “You’re Makin’ Me High” remixes also didn’t hurt. There was a dancehall version with Mad Cobra and a rap version with Foxy Brown. (Mad Cobra’s highest-charting single, 1992’s “Flex,” peaked at #13. Foxy Brown’s highest-charting single, the 1997 Jay-Z collab “I’ll Be,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) For the David Morales house remix, Toni Braxton took a page out of Mariah Carey’s book and recorded all-new vocals, transforming the song into an eight-minute dance marathon.

Director Bille Woodruff’s “You’re Makin’ Me High” video is an early entry in the great tradition of late-’90s R&B videos that look like they take place on spaceships. In the clip, Braxton rocks an extremely cool white catsuit and hangs out with a group of friends, all played by ’90s TV and movie stars: Vivica A. Fox, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Erika Alexander. The four of them audition potential suitors, dismissing most of them as they arrive via elevator in a fancy-looking loft. The guys are all either comically hot or comically awkward, and they’re all type-of-guy types of guy: Vegas-cowboy guy, boxer guy, pizza-delivery guy, abs guy. The guy who ends up with Toni Braxton is Bryce Wilson himself. They were dating at the time, and Woodruff later directed Wilson in the 2005 film Beauty Shop. After Wilson wins Braxton’s affections, he gives her a bath in a tub full of cotton candy, which seems like it would get very uncomfortable after about 30 seconds. Fun video!

Toni Braxton was already a star when “You’re Makin’ Me High” reached #1, and the song also helped Secrets debut at #2 behind Metallica’s Load. (I love the idea of a Metallica/Toni Braxton sales battle.) “You’re Makin’ Me High” might’ve been Braxton’s biggest hit to that point, but she still had bigger things yet to come. We’ll see Toni Braxton in this column again soon.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: For the soundtrack of their 2001 cinematic vehicle How High, Method Man and Redman recorded “Part II,” a sequel to their 1995 hit “How High,” and they built the track on a “You’re Makin’ Me High” sample. Toni Braxton got a feature credit even though she didn’t record new vocals for the song. Here’s the “Part II” video:

(“Part II” peaked at #72. Method Man’s highest-charting single, the 1995 Mary J. Blige collab “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. Redman’s highest-charting single is the aforementioned Method Man collab “How High,” which peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK dance producer Maya Jane Coles’ 2010 banger “What They Say,” which uses a bunch of samples of Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High” vocals:

Producer Ninteen85 then used Coles’ slowed-down “What They Say” as the beat for “Truffle Butter,” a 2015 monster jam that Nicki Minaj recorded with Drake and Lil Wayne. There’s still plenty of “You’re Makin’ Me High” on “Truffle Butter.” Here’s that song:

(Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne will all eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK rapper Tinie Tempah using a “You’re Makin’ Me High” sample on “They Don’t Know,” a 2017 collaboration with Kid Ink, Alastair, and Stefflon Don:

(Tinie Tempah’s highest-charting single is the 2011 Eric Turner collab “Written In The Stars,” which peaked at #12. Kid Ink’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2013 Chris Brown collab “Show Me,” which peaked at #13. Kid Ink also guested on Fifth Harmony’s 2015 hit “Worth It,” which peaked at #12. Stefflon Don doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of her own, but she guested on Halsey’s 2018 song “Alone,” which also features Big Sean and which peaked at #66.)

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