School’s back in session (virtually, this year), and the legendary Ms. Toni Braxton is giving us all a crucial spelling lesson – but more on that a little later.
Following 2018’s stellar Sex & Cigarettes, the deep-voiced diva (or, as the New York Times referred to her in 1993, “Up-And-Coming Throaty Alto”) returned on Friday (August 28) with another tight set of tracks in the form of Spell My Name.
The record was executive produced by Toni herself and Darcus Beese, the CEO of Island Records. And while the collection largely stays in a slower, midtempo-to-balladry lane, Spell My Name kicks off with her gloriously disco-tinged “Dance,” a sway-the-drama-away anthem that finds the singer commanding the dance floor, providing the feel-good feelings above a nostalgic, horn-y groove. As a storyteller who dabbles largely in the stuff of heartbreak (and un-breaking of hearts), it’s a treat to see her cut loose in maybe her most joyous moment since 2010’s “Make My Heart.”
The collection also includes her three-weeks-and-running No. 1 Adult R&B Billboard hit “Do It,” a dump-the-dud-already reassurance co-penned with longtime Love, Marriage & Divorce musical husband Babyface which appears in its original solo form, as well as the appropriately hype remix featuring Missy Elliott (“this shit is crazy!“), who’s enjoying a bit of a career renaissance of her own between her own output and guesting on cuts for Toni, Lizzo and Dua Lipa. Look, if Toni’s telling you to do what you need to do, you need to go ahead and do it.
Babyface also shows his (baby) face at the tail-end of the record with the swaggering and soulful “Nothin’,” a slow dance of a bonus track that takes Toni to the other extreme, begging and pleading for some romantic reciprocation: “Without your love I ain’t nothin / I’m just a girl, searching for something,” she aches on the all-or-nothing love song.
There’s also an unexpected assist from the fast-rising H.E.R., one of this year’s Album of the Year Grammy nominees, on the Soundz-crafted, Jeremih co-penned “Gotta Move On,” a slow-strutting, smoldering kiss-off, complete with a searing-hot guitar solo from H.E.R., which kind of brings the Rihanna “Kiss It Better” vibes: “Tell me, would it burn / Baby, if the tables turned?”
Toni stays in her midtempo pocket, hopping into the producer’s seat with the contemplative “Fallin'” before spelling it out on the album’s title track, complete with a dramatic string-led intro. She supplies the total cougar fantasy on “Spell My Name,” trading off with a younger man across the verses.
“I’m a little older and I really kinda like it that way, wanna play?” she seduces across the sexy track as she starts issuing the commands: “Spell my name, T-O-N-I-B-R-A-X-T-O-N.” It’s a total hot-for-teacher fantasy, and an absolutely fierce moment as the industry veteran take the reigns, showing this youngin’ the ropes.
The spelling theme keeps coming, but the love affair is already over one song later on the Antonio Dixon-produced “O.V.E.Rr.” – with an extra “R,” so you know it’s really over-r.
“Why we keep on going down the same road? Promise we gon’ end it, ’cause we both know / It’s just O-V-E-R, we’re O-V-E-R-R,” she declares across the dreamy, tripping beat.
G’harah “PK” Degeddingseze helms “Happy Without Me,” which plays like a piano-led ballad sequel to 2018’s best song, “Long As I Live.” Toni’s ultra deep voice matches the deep, deep hurt of watching a former flame move on with someone else: “Nothing’s bruised but my ego, nothing’s hurt but my pride,” she aches, delivering the most devastated drama on the record.
The record draws to a close with perhaps one of the most intriguing songs on the record: “Saturday Night,” which finds Toni teaming with Lana Del Rey collaborator Chris Braide, staying in and feeling the fever for the wrong one: “Alone on a Saturday night in a city screaming loud outside / And you know what I wanna do / I know you’re wrong for me, but I don’t care ’cause I just wanna do bad things to you tonight,” she belts. The piano-and-strings arrangement is such an interesting choice from a production standpoint, considering the song’s fiery spirit and heightened tension – it almost feels like the “stripped,” contemplative version of an existing uptempo hit.
Much like Sex & Cigarettes two years ago, Spell My Name is only further evidence that Toni’s still got plenty of stories to tell (and spell) with her inimitable voice, sounding like the seasoned pro she is while doing so: from dishing out the break-up advice to a friend, to instructing a younger lover in the ways to give her pleasure.
Thirty years deep into the game, the all-too-underrated “Un-Break My Heart” icon is only continuing to reinvent herself, blaze new trails and dance the night away while doing so – unless it’s one of those Saturday nights spent at home alone. Spell her name: I-C-O-N.
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Photo credit: Miller Mobley