Toni Braxton Remains on Top of Her Game With ‘Spell My Name’
It has been almost three decades since Toni Braxton released her self-titled debut album and instantly catapulted to number one. Over the course of time, she has won a staggering seven Grammys, seven American Music Awards, and nine Billboard awards. Hit singles like “Un-break My Heart” and “He Wasn’t Man Enough” soundtracked a generation, and secured a place for Braxton among the leading lights of R&B. In recent years, she has kept busy with a varied array of projects including a stint on “Dancing With the Stars,” and a central role in television series like “Braxton Family Values” and “Tamar & Vince.” Her latest album, “Spell My Name” is an emotional set of love songs that finds her striking a balance between classic and contemporary R&B stylings with all of her characteristic verve.
Opener “Dance” is silky and soulful, instantly bridging gaps between eras, with Braxton singing with easy abandon over a funky, horn-laden backdrop. By the end, she is laughing and hooting, making for an especially festive beginning. “Do It” switches dramatically, trading in the easy funk for soulful swagger, and placing Braxton over a more hard-hitting hip-hop beat, The track features the ever colorful Missy Elliot, who steps in midway, and sounds as spirited as she did back in the days of “Supa Dupa Fly,” rapping over goofy sound candy and designedly tacky strings.
H.E.R. teams up with Braxton on “Gotta Move On,” a song whose title seems perfectly consistent with her usual assertive conviction. Braxton is at her deepest bellowing, trading lines with H.E.R, in sinuous arrangements, growing more freely melismatic as the song progresses, hammering the titular line in through liberal repetition. “Falliin’” returns to the retro sensibilities of the opening track, but this time with rich, luscious strings that build to classic soul sounds. Braxton sings about falling steadily, hopelessly in love, with a deep, sonorous emotion in her voice that effectively conveys the message. The strings continue on the title track, brightened by an early ‘90s percussive R&B trickle. It’s a remarkable feat how Braxton manages to make her voice so low during her verses, then switches to a more standard, female register, sounding like two entirely different singers, and showing off her dynamic range. Much like on “Gotta Move On,” her lyrics center on a simple, celebratory message of empowerment, while her fanciful vocal stylings make for the most stimulating song yet.
The interestingly titled “O.V.E.Rr” brings a dose of smooth, sultry soul, as Braxton continues in the love drunk frenzy of “Fallin’,” with a refrain of “Feindin’ your juice,” sung over more string-laden, classic instrumentation. “Happy Without Me” is the most emotionally crushing song of the set, with Braxton spilling her emotions unabashedly, as she addresses a former paramour now in a new relationship, putting her ego to the side, and wishing all the best, wincing and at moments sounding like she’s breaking into tears, over appropriately charged, dramatic crescendos. At this point, the album can grow a bit lugubrious and burdensome heavy, as Braxton continues on to “Saturday Night.” On the other hand, the song is an emotional peak, traversing everything from vaguely Michael Jackson-esque “Hoo Hoos” to an epic, multi tracked chorus and an elegantly unresolved, sighing finale.
Breathy, husky bellowing and more early ‘90s R&B stylings continue on “Do It.” There is a richness and conviction to Braxton’s delivery that sets her apart from most of her peers and especially shines on this track. During the chorus, she really unleashes, spurring on a partner in hopes of skipping past the drama, and moving on to a more positive state. Finally, the bonus track “Nothing” concludes the album with the most comprehensive presentation of era-overlapping R&B instincts yet. Both Braxton’s classic inflections and the bluesy guitars that anchor her recall generations of time-tested sounds, as her lyrics provide an afterthought to the romantic fare that has made up most of the record.
“Spell My Name” stands out for its timeless quality and its unhindered emotion. Braxton proves herself again a singer of the highest ranks, drawing from a rich lexicon of soulful stylings, and fleshing out her feelings with her distinctive, deep timbre and characteristic flair. The appearances from Missy Elliot and H.E.R. provide just enough varied star power, while the songs tackle the trials and tribulations of love with a depth and authenticity rarely achieved in music with broad pop appeal. Braxton balances a cool disregard for overly trendy fare with a universal sensibility that makes such gimmicks unnecessary, and delivers everything that she has made her name with over the course of her fruitful career.
“Spell My Name” releases Aug. 28 on Apple Music.