"The singing that everyone's raving about today, the Jennifer Hudsons, Fantasias?" says Gail Mitchell, senior R&B editor at Billboard magazine. "That's what Toni was doing in the '90s in the wake of Whitney and other real singing singers."

Braxton's self-titled album spent three weeks atop the R&B/hip-hop albums chart. And over the course of the decade, she had four No. 1's on that chart and five top-10 albums on the Billboard 200, Mitchell notes.

But the last decade has been criminal on her personal and professional life, as she allows in the show's opening close-up. She filed for a second bankruptcy, discovered that one of her sons is autistic and separated from her husband.

She's also says she's been affected by health issues — a heart condition and lupus — that prevented her from furthering her career and committing to projects.

"My career is on hiatus by choice," she says. "I don't look at it as a low point. In any career there's ups and downs. It's been a really tough three years."

Even before that, she was at a generational impasse. Like many '90s contemporaries — Janet Jackson, Boys II Men, among them — she wasn't able to transition to the 2000s with the same strength.

In fact, since 2000's "Heat," which moved 2 million copies, she's been shedding listeners by the millions. Her follow-up to that album sold 243,000 copies, and last year's "Pulse" sold 145,000, a career low, according to Nielsen Soundscan

DJ Tim Watts of Baltimore's Magic 95.9 says the new material hasn't translated into sales because she's gone after the hard-edged sound that would get her played on hip-hop stations like 92Q instead of playing to her roots.

"Toni is no longer hip. She's basically an adult contemporary artist now," he says. "The 35-to-50 bracket is where her audience is," Watts says. It's only on stations like his, he says, that her old material gets played alongside R&B stalwarts Luther Vandross and Anita Baker.

Mitchell says that overall industry trends have cut into Braxton's sales as well but that her fortunes come down to her choice of material.

"Whitney's gone through the same thing. Janet Jackson's is the same. For the ladies of the '90s, the questions is 'How do you evolve?'" Mitchell says. "It depends on the song, You can't pretend to be something you're not. You can't go back and try to appeal to the kids by being a copy of what's out there. You have to stay true to what you are."

Braxton says she did not pursue the show to revive her flagging career. She says the idea for this one came from her sister Tamar, who has wanted a show since 2007.

She says doesn't even watch that much reality TV save for the "Top Model" shows.

"This is not going to help my financial problems. It's not the kind of money you get paid for a show like this," she says. "I just said 'yes' because I thought it was absolutely right what my sisters said. I've never told my story about financial woes, and I was ready to tell my story."

But it's usually at low points like this one that other artists have turned to welcoming environs of reality TV.

Mitchell, who's not ready to write her off, says Braxton is a hit song away from regaining her status. But until then, TV is a way to keep her in the public eye, even if it's unclear what effect it can have on record sales.

"I'm sure she'll get a spike, but sustainable sales is the operative word," she says.

That's the consensus on the show.

"As we've seen so many times before, it doesn't always revive a career, but having that audience watching something you do is always a plus," Riddick says.

"She should get on 'Hollywood Squares' if they'll take her," Watts adds. "It'll introduce her to new audiences who may not have heard of her, and it'll re-introduce her to some of the audience members who left hip-hop stations are listening to those like mine."

Beyond the show, Braxton hasn't thought far ahead.

She sounds, in fact, tired, and when asked if she's working on new material, or signed to label, she says something surprising.

"I don't even know if it's something I want to do. I don't know if I'm going to do music anymore. I love it still and I'll always sing. I'll always do a show here and there, but I don't know if that's going to be my concentration and my profession."

At least, she can rest assured there'll always be a place for her on "Celebrity Apprentice."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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