Album Review: Toni Braxton, Spell My Name

Toni Braxton

Spell My Name (released August 28, 2020)

About a decade ago, Jay Z famously said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you want my old s***, buy my old albums.” Nas, just last week, echoed that same sentiment on his new album.

As a creative I get it. Fans make the mistake of thinking their favorite artists are stuck in time warps, able to recreate their favorite sounds over and over for years on end. But let’s be real, you aren’t the same person you were 10 years ago – at least I hope not. If you are, whew, that might explain some things.

But as an R&B lover, I also feel the frustration of fellow fans. With R&B’s sound being so diluted in the mainstream, we often lean on our few remaining legends to provide the classic sounds that made us fans in the first place. It’s pretty frustrating when they don’t, or just can’t.

That’s why you have to show love to our girl Toni Braxton, an unwavering oasis in the unpredictable waters of R&B. Her 10th studio album, Spell My Name, stands on the foundation she built nearly 30 years ago.

That means no out-of-place cameos, no awkward autotune, no pseudo rap delivery. Just pure, unfiltered Toni. And if we’re talking unfiltered Toni, you know we’re talking about heartbreak.

That poor woman has been trying to unbreak her heart since they were showing new episodes of the X-Files on Fox. Lord help.

I was a pretty big fan of her last offering, 2018’s Sex & Cigarettes, but some reviews were mixed, often pointing to a lack of cohesion. That’s certainly not the case here – everything flows seamlessly, even when Toni switches up the pace.

Album opener “Dance” might seem like a party thanks to the handclaps and horns, but listen closely and she’s actually attempting to two-step her toxic relationship away. The somber piano ballad “Do It” is more to the point – outright telling ol’ dude to call Tyrone. Missy Elliott comes through for remix duties, giving the track a whole new feel with an infectious midtempo bounce. If you miss the era of remixes, this one fills the void.

Missy’s not the only guest star who slides through. The ubiquitous H.E.R. fits nicely with Toni’s husky tones on the self-explanatory “Gotta Move On.” While guest Johnny Yukon’s Drake cosplay on the title track isn’t typically my thing, I do appreciate the modern spin on production, which keeps the album sounding fresh. Also, Toni doing her sexy speak-n’-spell thing on the track works a lot better in practice than you’d expect.

But, for Toni, the name of the game is almost always pain. “Possibly, my ego won’t let me realize I’ve been beaten, that’s why I’m falling,” she coos on “Fallin,” a standout cut that might wind up pretty dull in inexperienced hands but she knows how to add emotional inflections that push the song to the next level. That’s also reflected in “O.V.E.Rr.,” where the orchestra’s weeping strings add so much to Toni’s simmering anger.

And speaking of anger, “Saturday Night” feels like score for a Jordan Peele revenge thriller.

All 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, cuz I just wanna do
Bad things to you tonight

Y’all don’t even have to do one of those spooky remixes like “I Got 5 on It,” this one is scary as-is.

At just 10 tracks, Spell My Name (THANKFULLY) bucks the trend of bloated release that only serve to pad streaming numbers. Instead, this feels more like a throwback from the vinyl era. That makes Spell My Name a extremely air-tight and compact release – only “Happy Without Me,” a serviceable but mildly forgettable track, falls a little short of expectations.

Simply put, Spell My Name feels like a vintage Toni Braxton album. No left-field surprises, no awkward attempts for relevancy. It’s just the Toni we know and love.

It’s what we expect when we hear her name.

Best tracks: “Do It (Remix),” “Fallin’,” “O.V.E.Rr.”

4 stars out of 5

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