Toni Braxton was one of the biggest pop and R&B stars of the 1990s, and after a few years out of the spotlight, began a career resurgence began with 2014’s “Love, Marriage & Divorce” album with Babyface, which continued with 2018’s “Sex & Cigarettes.” Now, a mere two years later, she’s back with “Spell My Name,” possibly her strongest album since her halcyon period in the mid-to-late ‘90’s.
She’s brought along several longtime collaborators. Antonio Dixon penned the song “Long As I Live,” and he’s all over this album, chiming in with the second single, the shimmery summertime disco stomper, “Dance.” He also co-wrote “Do It” with Braxton and Babyface, who is also omnipresent, not only as a songwriter but because this album was recorded entirely at his Brandon’s Way recording studio.
For her part, Braxton cowrote nearly every song on the album, and she and her collaborators have succeeded in deftly meshing her signature minor-key R&B sound with production and vocal arrangements that keep things classy but contemporary. The mistress of melancholy, Braxton has made a career out of heartbreak and this record is no exception: Even “Dance,” the only fully upbeat song here, arrives as the remedy to a break-up. Meanwhile, “Gotta Move On” featurs a slow and meditative 4/4 beat with swooping strings and Ernie Isley-esque guitar solos from special guest H.E.R.
Of course, Braxton brings powerhouse vocals to the songs.. The emotive, scene-setting chords that begin “Happy Without Me” is one of her best-ever recorded performances, with lyrics to match: “Nothin’s bruised but my ego/ Nothin’s hurt but my pride.”
With just eight songs (plus a remix), the album actually harkens back to the vinyl age, when the physical limitations of an album meant shorter track lists. But that’s just part of the overall vibe. This is a not an R&B record made on a bedroom laptop: It’s expensive sounding, with a stellar cast of collaborators and dramatic orchestrations. And by the time the country-soul closing track rolls up — fittingly, a Babyface number, with a put-your-hands-in-the-air chorus’ — fans will be ready to start the whole thing over.