When Rihanna celebrated her 30th birthday at The Pool in New York on Feb. 20, among her gifts was a surprise 30-minute performance by one her favorite artists. Social media posts the next morning revealed the identity the performer: Toni Braxton.

“It was so much fun,” recalls Braxton, speaking with Billboard a few days later. “I started the show with ‘Breathe Again,’ Rihanna’s favorite song, and ended with ‘He Wasn't Man Enough.’ And she sang along to every song.”

Fans worldwide have been singing along to Braxton’s music ever since the husky-voiced singer released her self-titled, chart-topping debut album in 1993. Featuring the career-defining hits “Another Sad Love Song” and “Breathe Again,” the eight-times-platinum record netted Braxton her first three Grammy Awards, including one for best new artist.

Since then, the international superstar has more than lived up to that promising debut, selling 15.3 million albums in the United States alone, according to Nielsen Music. As chronicled in her best-selling memoir, UnBreak My Heart (and subsequent Lifetime TV movie the same name), Braxton’s career comprises the highs — and lows — that mint legends.

Discovered and mentored by the hitmaking production team Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, she has been defined and redefined: Fashion icon. Broadway and Las Vegas headliner. TV reality star. Survivor financial, legal and health issues. Divorcée and proud mother. Singer-songwriter-producer. Seven-time Grammy winner. Philanthropist.

Now, with the March 23 release her ninth studio album, Sex & Cigarettes, which marks her first solo release for Def Jam Records, Braxton is simultaneously celebrating her silver anniversary in music. The album is her first since her 2014 Grammy-winning collaboration with Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce. It’s also her first solo album in almost a decade.

“Where has the time gone?” says Braxton with a laugh. “I can’t believe I’ve sustained 25 years in the business; I never imagined all the things I’ve accomplished through the ups and downs. Downs that got so low I never thought I’d still be here. But for whatever reason, music has always given me the strength to get up and the balls to try again.”

Rodney Shealey, executive vp urban promotion at Def Jam, calls her career “a testament to the consistency and quality her music. This new project is yet another affirmation her greatness: powerhouse vocal performances and timeless songwriting. Toni is truly an icon.”

The eight-song Sex & Cigarettes already boasts two singles, the guitar- and drum-driven “Deadwood,” about surviving heartbreak, and the newly released “Long As I Live.” Behind only the title track, which addresses infidelity, Braxton says “Live” is her second-favorite song on the album.

“You know I’m stuck on love,” she says. “‘Long As I Live’ talks about never getting over someone getting over you. After I wrote this song, I heard Adele’s ‘Hello.’ When you think about love and that person is over you, it’s like you’re breaking up all over again.”

Braxton’s fans will encounter a frank, uncensored and more hands-on artist on Sex & Cigarettes. There’s the piano-driven ballad “FOH.” She teams with Colbie Caillat on “My Heart,” which she co-wrote with Caillat and Babyface. Reminiscent classic ’90s Braxton, the song also has been recorded in Spanish.

For the first time in her career, Braxton says she recently wrote and produced — entirely on her own — a song for a film. “The Forgiven” is the title song to Saban Films’ March 9 thriller involving a real-life encounter between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and an incarcerated murderer, portrayed respectively by Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana. “My big brother Babyface told me, ‘It’s time. I taught you well,’” says Braxton her production work. “So here I am 25 years later, feeling like an adult in my career.”

Braxton comes full circle on her career with Sex & Cigarettes. That journey actually began when Babyface and Reid introduced their LaFace Records newcomer by way the duo’s first movie soundtrack, 1992’s Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy. As Babyface recalls, he co-wrote two songs for the project with Anita Baker in mind. When Baker passed, he and Reid turned to Braxton. That’s how Braxton came to record her double-barreled mainstream breakthrough: “Give U My Heart,” a duet with Babyface that reached No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home,” inspired by a pivotal line in the film delivered by Murphy’s co-star Halle Berry, which peaked at No. 33 on the Hot 100 and No. 4 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.

A year later, another song originally intended for the soundtrack — “You Mean the World to Me” — became the third top 10 hit single on Braxton’s debut solo album, peaking at No. 7 on the Hot 100.

“Those songs weren't written for Toni,” says Babyface, “but it’s like they were now. The soundtrack certainly made the difference in us introducing her. You couldn't have asked for anything better.”

Recalls Braxton: “That moment changed my life and career. I’ll always love L.A. and Kenny for that, as those songs were meant for someone else. You’ve got to be ready because you never know when your moment is going to happen.”

Braxton’s string pop and R&B hits includes “Un-Break My Heart,” which topped the Hot 100 for 11 weeks.

“I’ve learned that I’m much more talented than I remember,” she says. “Because when you first start, you’re so green. You just want to sing and show your talent. Then you find out it’s about more than talent — it’s also about the business. I hate that part it.”

That, no doubt, is a veiled reference to contractual, management and other legal issues she has battled during her career. She has filed two bankruptcies, the first in 1996 in a dispute against LaFace and parent company Arista Records. “People like to think it’s about money,” she says. “But it’s more about understanding that you have to educate yourself. And you can only learn through experience.”

Two years after the 1996 bankruptcy, Braxton found herself on Broadway achieving another career milestone: the first black female to portray the leading Broadway role Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Her credits since have included a second Disney production on Broadway, Aida; a guest-star stint in the Broadway musical After Midnight; her first major TV movie role, in 2013, in Lifetime’s Twist Faith; the 2016 biopic Unbreak My Heart; 2018’s Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Tuff Story; and the WE TV reality series Braxton Family Values.

“Acting isn't organic for me; I practice and take classes, but I love it,” she says. “The good thing is more people are starting to call me since Faith.”

Braxton remains just as busy fstage. The devoted mother two sons, Denim, 16, and Diezel, 14, she is also a dedicated spokeswoman for Lupus L.A. and Autism Speaks, in the wake her 2010 lupus diagnosis and her youngest son’s autism.

“With any illness, you have to figure out your body and how it affects you,” says Braxton, who retired briefly in 2013 because the diagnosis. “Doctors said — and I thought — that I couldn’t work anymore. But Babyface, Anita Baker and other artists reached out and said, ‘You can’t retire. This is your gift.’”

Noting the challenge educating her family about the autoimmune disease, Braxton says it has taken her 10 years “to understand my body and learn how to pace myself as I work. It’s a challenge that I take one day at a time, but I’m doing great.”

As is her relationship with beau and Cash Money Records co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams. In February, the two confirmed their engagement. “He’s such a sweetheart,” she says. “Back when I found out I had lupus, I just decided to be happy. I can’t care what people think.”

In promotion mode now for Sex & Cigarettes and planning a North American spring tour, Braxton says there’s one song she never gets tired performing: Rihanna’s favorite, “Breathe Again.”

“It’s my go-to song that I can sing anytime,” she explains. “If I need to warm up, if I need to impress you with my vocal skills, if I want to feel good as I help heal people with broken hearts, that’s the song I’m going to sing. It’s like that classic black Chanel dress that goes with everything. You just change it up with accessories.”

Asked how she would sum up her 25-year career, Braxton takes a minute to contemplate. “I’d like to say, ‘The bitch is back,’” she says with her throaty laugh. “But the lady in me will say, ‘I’m still here.’”

This article originally appeared in the March 24 issue Billboard.

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