Toni Braxton, the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and entertainer extraordinaire, has been through the wringer since the 90s came to a close. The rhythm and blues diva went through lawsuits, a muddled reality TV show, multiple bankruptcies and living with lupus.
After changing her label by signing to Island Records and signaling a new era in her storied career, Braxton’s album “Spell My Name” is a return to form for the pioneering star. Coming in at 10 songs and 35 minutes of runtime, “Spell My Name” is a focused, concise comeback that, despite its flaws, showcases some of Braxton’s strongest songwriting to date.
Although Braxton’s husky contralto vocals and sultry delivery are as strong as they’ve ever been, few songs on the project ever reach greatness due to underwhelming production on the backend of the project.
The album’s leadoff song, “Dance,” is a solid up-tempo number. With a groovy drum beat, light strings and piano mingling with Braxton’s passionate vocals, the song is the strongest of the album. The structure of the track is reminiscent of the 2000s R&B sound which Braxton influenced: a sandwiching of hip-hop grooves, soulful vocals, and bits of electronic instrumentation with synths.
The lead single, “Do It (with Missy Elliott),” is a wonderfully delightful venture from the two legendary artists. Both put in impressive performances, but it's a shame Elliott didn’t get more time other than a 16 bar feature, as her presence on the track is a nice change of pace from Braxton’s slower and methodical approach. The song is still gold despite the short feature, being one of the best highlights on the album.
Braxton and featured artist H.E.R. try their hand at theatrical performances and production on the next track “Gotta Move On.” An enveloping orchestral opening bleeds into Braxton floating her way around a beefy sub-bass and wavy synths, consistently building until a reverb-heavy guitar solo surrounds the artists.
These three songs and the rest of the subject matter on the project all focus on the concept of moving on. This message serves a multilateral purpose — on one hand displaying Braxton moving on from a relationship and on the other signaling Braxton moving on in her career, no longer concerned with others’ criticisms.
The three previous songs feature strong writing concerning these themes, but the fourth track “Fallin’” is a misfire. The production is very reminiscent of 90s croon tunes, but Braxton does most of the heavy lifting since the backing track and beat do not do much to support her. The writing is also fairly surface level, which is underwhelming given the scale and energy of the previous tracks.
The title track, “Spell My Name,” is a flashback to 90s nostalgia. Braxton bounces back and forth with an uncredited feature, who unfortunately is the weakest aspect of the song. The featured artist seems to be trying to do their best Bryson Tiller impersonation, but with none of the bravado that Tiller has. It's unfortunate given the song’s fun chorus, where it quite literally spells out Braxton’s name.
“O.V.E.Rr.” is a smooth ballad featuring the strongest songwriting on the project. Braxton seems to have an affinity for letter-naming choruses, first with “Spell My Name” and now with this track, as Braxton laments on her and her partner going down the same road and promising that once and for all, it’s O-V-E-R. Overall, the tune is a fun romp.
Similarly, the next two ballads follow suit. “Happy Without Me,” features more strong songwriting, with one of my favorite lines on the album — “Nothing is bruised but my ego.” Vocals are yet again the shining star of the song, as no other singer’s voice is like Braxton’s, but the backing track does nothing to match her mesmerizing yet melancholic delivery.
“Saturday Night” covers the same subject matter, sadness while reflecting over an ex, but the piano and strings have a far stronger melody making “Saturday Night” my favorite ballad of the album. It serves as the album’s closer despite being the eighth listed song. The ninth track “Do It” is the same as the Missy Elliott version featured earlier but without Missy Elliott.
The tenth tune, “Nothin’,” is a nice, laid-back bonus track that I can envision being used to close a cheesy Netflix romance film. It’s cute, short and sweet, making it a nice change of pace from the other sorrowful tunes on the album.
Braxton has been nothing but consistent throughout her musical ventures, and “Spell My Name” is another solid addition to her storied discography and a nice nostalgic venture for those who reminisce about the 2000s R&B scene.