Since the mid-’90s, international megastar Toni Braxton has been a household name. Blessed with a voice that perfectly balances technical control, raw power and a touch of grit—Braxton rocketed to fame with a string of chart-topping albums and singles. Her massive success speaks to the widespread appeal of her soothing and sincere delivery.
One of her greatest gifts is the ability to absolutely saturate every syllable with feeling, without ever sounding contrived. Over the course of eight albums, her voice has evoked a collage of smoky lounges and intimate moments. Yet her voice commands a directness and clarity that is missing from her more melodramatic peers. On Spell My Name, she’s fully possessed of her expressive powers. The album, however, sometimes feel stuck in place.
The album treads the familiar ground of slow to mid-tempo R&B. Toni Braxton weaves convincing soliloquies of heartbreak over gauzy and slick arrangements. Moments of spunky confidence intersperse the ballads, though even here relaxed grooves dominate the vibe.
Spell My Name follows its brief and tormented predecessor, Sex & Cigarettes. The 2018 album saw Braxton explore cool dissatisfaction and minute textures, emphasizing her usual themes of strength and heartbreak. The result was arguably her most understated album to date.
By contrast, energetic nuance surfaces early on Spell My Name. Where Sex & Cigarettes featured low-key, introspective melodies, Spell My Name brings slightly tougher elements to a similarly sparse production. It’s a bit cleaner and just a tad meaner. Attitude seasons emotion, as on the remix of lead single “Do It.” An energetic hi-hat-driven pulse is spiked with enhanced production, exuberant whoops and a player-scolding rap from guest Missy Elliott.
Meanwhile, “Dance” weds Braxton’s relaxed, joyous element to early disco with busy percussion and broad sustain from the string section. Again, the vehicle for the lyrics is breaking from someone, this time coping by dancing. “I don’t really care/ I just wanna dance the love away,” she sings, seemingly through gritted teeth. Though not entirely convincing as an expression of triumph, “Dance” adequately supplies a dose of party juice.
Some nice instrumental touches add flavor to the proceedings. The appealing title track begins with a crafty manipulation of a scratchy string sample, which seamlessly blends into a more organic, modern sound. The song is a breathless meditation, touched with urgency and rippling rhythms. Braxton navigates her instrument with aplomb, toying with indulgence and restraint in equal measure. Her exquisite technique creates a unique push-pull tension, punctuated by the chorus and the repeated letters: “T-O-N-I.”
“Saturday Night,” like a handful of songs on the album, starts with rainy day piano—but opens up for a stunning chorus. Braxton is again at the helm, honing the lovelorn edge of passion in a magnetic performance. The emotional build-up of “Gotta Move On” achieves payoff with a distortion-fueled guitar lead.
But overall, the songs get caught in a nonchalant holding pattern. Running just 35 minutes—including bonus track “Nothin'” and both versions of “Do It”—the album grows long on slow-burning heartache. An icy sheen of studio compression pervades the album’s sound, while the mild gusto promised by the opening tracks dissipates quickly. Braxton’s lyrical introspection and vocal refinement place the majority of the record in the realm of the sensual, rather than the overt.
Not that this would necessarily spell the album’s doom. Some of Braxton’s best work used a similar recipe, resulting in some legitimate super-hits. Spell My Name simply lacks the attention-getters of her early career as well as some of the focused intent of Cigarettes & Sex. As a consequence, Spell My Name makes less of a statement than its predecessor. Still, her subtlety sets her apart. Where other divas with powerful pipes might exult in their bombast, Braxton makes virtuosity sound easy. In terms of pure vocal prowess, she’s still at the top of her field.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.