The masterful R&B singer returns with more creative control on a project where her voice, style, and swagger are well preserved.
Toni Braxton could have had more. That seems like a crazy assertion to make about an artist whose first two albums went 8x platinum in the U.S., but Braxton’s career has been marked with health issues, lawsuits, and industry setbacks—most famously, plans to release the 2pac-sampling “Me & My Boyfriend” as a single were scrapped when JAY-Z and Beyoncé put out “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” suppressing the reach of Braxton’s 2002 record More Than a Woman. On her new album, Spell My Name, the 52-year-old wants more; she wants her name carved in stone so her legacy is never in question. “I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’ve been blessed, so put some respect on my name a little bit,” Braxton told iHeartRadio last month.
With Spell My Name, Braxton upholds her position as an originator of the sound of 1990s R&B. Though long-time collaborators Babyface and Antonio Dixon once again assist in production, Braxton asserts more agency than her previous album, 2018’s Sex & Cigarettes, by writing and producing a significant amount of the record. It adds up to a short collection that shows the familiar voice, style, and swagger of Braxton to be well preserved, even though things get off to an inauspicious start with “Dance.” It’s a track that aspires to the great tradition of danceable hits about dancing—Jessie Ware made an album of these recently—as Braxton tries to groove the pain of a break-up away. On a record that trades in retro sounds, this gooey disco jam it’s one of the few moments that sounds dated and stale.
The album’s best moments move with a sleek sophistication that defines some of her greatest hits. On the excellent “Gotta Move On,” Braxton analyzes post-breakup life over an immaculately crafted musical backdrop and backing vocals courtesy of H.E.R. The title track features a back-and-forth between Braxton and an unbilled male vocalist in the role of a younger beau. “I’m a little older and I really kinda like it that way,” she declares. “I’ll get you straight up fiendin’,” he later retorts like a guy who has heard “He Wasn’t Man Enough” and is trying very hard. Braxton’s voice—with all its brilliant depth—suitably overpowers her co-stars’ presence, hinting at the chasm in their maturity and experience.
Missy Elliott appears on and co-produces “Do It,” throwing back to her more understated work with the ’90s soul group 702 that ran counter to her more futurist solo catalogue. The best song, though, is “O.V.E.Rr.,” a tale of two lovers who keep coming back to each other. There have been a million songs that cover similar terrain but Braxton boasts not just the voice to carry the drama, but the specificity as a writer to depict the emotion. Over a swooning instrumental, her voice gasps and gyrates. When she hits that extra “r” in spelling out the title—the relationship is more “overer” than before—you want to believe her but can’t.
Less impressive are the ballads that appear down the stretch. There’s a touch of musical theatre to “Happy Without Me.” It’s alright, but it’s not exactly “Un-Break My Heart.” And the album is probably missing that one banger to put a button on the set that perhaps a Darkchild or Pharrell—two of Braxton’s iPhone contacts—could have helped provide. Still, Braxton has evoked the spirit of ’90s R&B without ever sounding like she’s simply throwing out nostalgia bait. Into her fourth decade as a recording artist, she’s refusing to accept that her best is in the rearview mirror.
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