EBONToni Braxton chats with EBONY.com about new album Sex & Cigarettes, influential artists and the health scare that taught her not to take her gift for granted.

With seven Grammys and countless hits under belt, Toni Braxton’s status as an R&B icon is undeniable. Like many greats before her, the silky-voiced songstress contemplated ending her career far too soon, but she came to her senses with the help of longtime friends and a lupus flare that threatened to take her God-given gift away from her. Here, the timeless beauty dishes on her latest body of work, the women who inspire her every day and the moment she knew she couldn’t let go of her calling.

EBONY: It’s been eight years since your last solo album, PULSE. You won a Grammy for your 2014 collaboration album with Babyface; how would you say you’ve changed or evolved musically since your last solo project?

Toni Braxton: The biggest thing is that on this album I do a lot of writing and producing myself, and Babyface really encouraged me to take that leap.

EBONY: Was the success of Love, Marriage & Divorce encouraging when it came to recording and sharing this new album with your fans?

TB: Yes. It’s weird because it feels like everything is coming full circle. The first time Babyface and I worked together was on the Boomerang soundtrack. He helped introduced me to the world, then he helped me with my first solo album.

The reason we did Love, Marriage & Divorce was because I was talking about retirement, and Babyface said, ‘No, you gotta stop talking like that. You can’t stop singing.’ He encouraged me so much, and it really feels like it’s all come full circle.

EBONY: On the last season of Braxton Family Values, you shared that your lupus was beginning to have an effect on your voice. 

TB: Yes, lupus can affect any part of the body. I didn’t know it, but when they did an MRI, I had some big, giant thing on my throat. I’m very, very lucky that they were able to find it fast and treat me for it, and today I’m as good as gold.

I was definitely scared about that. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m going to retire, I don’t want to do this,’ and my gift was being taken from me. For me, it was a spiritual reminder of, ‘How dare I discard my gift?’ I was really depressed for a while, and it just hit me that I was about to throw away my blessing. It wasn’t a good thing, but I’m choosing to find the silver lining in it.

EBONY: How are you feeling healthwise as you prepare to drop Sex & Cigarettes?

TB: I have good days and bad days. I had a little flare that started a couple of weeks ago, and it showed itself last week. I’m really good at hiding it, I think, but that one came up in a big way and let me know I needed to slow down a bit.

I’m very fortunate that my body talks to me; unfortunately, I didn’t listen to it when it told me to relax, but I’m feeling great now!

EBONY: In celebration of National Women’s History Month, I’d love if you could speak on a few singers who most influenced or inspire you.

TB: Rihanna is very inspiring. I’ve always been a fan of hers, and later I found out she was a big fan of mine. I just love her strength, and I love that she has a voice she uses proudly. She’s not muffled. My generation of singers, we were just the beginning of women having unique voices, and now the new generation is really allowed to live their lives out loud, and I love that.

I love Aretha Franklin; she’s a PK (preacher’s kid), just like I am. She also started in gospel and transitioned into secular music like I did. And everyone knows I love Anita [Baker].

Natalie Cole as well; I love and miss her so much, and she’s high on the list for me. And of course, Whitney Houston. She was my big sister in the business, and she always gave me great advice. Every time I sing “Let It Flow,” I think of her because she used to always tell me that was her favorite Toni Braxton song.

Sex & Cigarettes is available for purchase and streaming now.