If at any time when you’re typing out the name Toni Braxton on your computer or other digital devices, and the red squiggly underline appears, then you might want to add her name to your spelling suggestions dictionary immediately.
The heartbreak mastermind is a multi-awarded Grammy winner, the queen of Adult R&B radio, and most importantly, a living legend. On Spell My Name, her first album under the Island Records imprint, and first since the Grammy-nominated Sex & Cigarettes, Braxton makes it clear why they’ll never be another T-o-n-i-B-r-a-x-t-o-n.
Spell My Name has its striking resemblances to her Sex & Cigarettes; the informal song titles, more explicit lyrics, and her signature deep, husky voice as the focal point. The most glaring inclusion, for logical reasons, is Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Antonio Dixon. The industry vet, who first started work with Braxton on the Libra album, has seen an expansion in his role on her future albums ever since their Best R&B Album win for Love, Marriage, & Divorce with Babyface in 2015. Dixon also is the genius behind the heartfelt “Long As I Live,” Braxton’s first solo number-one single in 18 years. That said, their sound collaborative nature spills over on the new album.
Opening with “Dance,” the album’s most upbeat song, Braxton further confirms that she is a balladeer by day, and a club singer by night. In a fresh headspace after a breakup, Braxton utilizes the dancefloor as a place of recovery to boogie down and leave everything she’s recently learned about her no-good man behind.
It’s always hard to choose between an original version of a song and its remix, when both are equally as great. Braxton makes a compelling case that fans can like either version with the lead single, “Do It.” The basis of the original is geared towards her core audience: a somber piano solo. This formula works, considering the success it has had on her storied music career. The remixed version, where Missy Elliott guest spots and co-produces, services Braxton’s signature sound but ups the ante with slightly sped-up vocals, and a speaker-rattling backbeat. No matter the version, “Do It” is still a quality record about a female character she’s encouraging to see how the unending behavior of her man isn’t worth putting up with.
While advising others on relationship matters is much easier than turning the mirror on our situations, that’s just the nature of the beast. “Fallin,” an achingly beautiful composition, presents Braxton’s emotions over an unrequited lover in a descending form. His nonchalant attitude about the romance at hand is painful to hear, especially over the simplistic arrangement of gentle piano notes and dramatic strings. Though it’s what seemingly is keeping Braxton and her feelings hanging on by a thread.
Braxton modernizes her sound on “O.V.E.Rr.,” where she emulates current R&B vocal techniques and trap melodies to detail a relationship that is exceedingly difficult to let go. But even with greater emphasis on the R in over, Braxton is still perplexed as to why she and partner can’t seem to come to an agreement on finally calling it quits.
There are a lot of younger men who are attracted to an experienced woman. Take Masego for example, who sang an ode to mature women and foxy mamas with levity and stylish funk on “Old Age” featuring SiR. Braxton leads the way for women of a particular age to embrace their inner cougar on the title track. Blending seductive dancehall and classical instrumentation, Braxton swirls her velvety voice with Johnny Yukon, an uncredited vocalist and emerging singer/songwriter and producer, in hopes he can take her to ecstasy with his youthful stamina.
It’s one thing not seeing an ex you envisioned happily ever after with ever again, but it’s another when you see them coupled up with someone new, and living a picturesque life. On “Happy Without Me,” a gloomy piano-built ballad, Braxton coos in a pain-stricken cadence about feeling overwhelmed in agony by the ongoing, romantic updates involving her former lover and his new interest. Her sultry, lower register evokes subtle hints of shortness of breath, likely from teary-eyes, that makes for the greatest emotional performance on the album.
As good as Braxton is on her own, she is often better on a record when she is paired with someone who is as talented as her. Perhaps that’s why “Gotta Move On” featuring H.E.R. is the album’s centerpiece.
The cinematic intro draws attention with the classical symphony and its operatic playing of elegant strings. The seamless transition into the slow-burning guitar, played by H.E.R., sets the low-lit mood of the record about leaving a one-sided relationship where she’s sacrificed her gut feelings for his sake. Besides H.E.R.’s agile guitar solo that scorches the final showdown between Braxton and her unappreciative man, the true selling point is Braxton’s staggering vocal execution above her dark undertones that carries the chorus to the next world of quiet-storm.
Like many of her previous works, Braxton, a queen of heartbreak, is flawlessly able to take audiences through the painful aftermath of a failed relationship with true sophistication. Yes, there is a bit of self-pity that remains dormant in the core context of her music like loneliness, sadness, and heartache. But, on her albums in recent years, Braxton has turned the woeful narrative of wallowing in love’s misery into a story of restoration. She does it without making a bad album, too.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Standout tracks: “Gotta Move On” featuring H.E.R., “Fallin’” and “Do It”