Album Review: Toni Braxton’s Soulful ‘Spell My Name’
Toni Braxton possesses one of the most recognizable and iconic voices in popular music. The R&B legend’s honey-dipped pipes make good songs great and great ones extraordinary. She gets the most out of that wonderful instrument on Spell My Name. Coming in at just nine tracks (including a remix), the enduring hitmaker’s 10th album is a concise listening experience that oozes heart and soul. Spell My Name is particularly successful when Toni plays to her strengths — namely old-school soul and silky smooth ballads.
A perfect example is “Happy Without Me,” which is Toni’s very own “Someone Like You.” Like the famous Adele song, this is a gut-wrenching plea to an ex-lover. “Heard y’all been trying on wedding gowns, I heard y’all bought a house,” the 7-time Grammy begins over a stripped-back piano arrangement. “I almost had you walking down the aisle, but almost doesn’t count.” Ultimately, she puts her pride in her pocket and wishes him well: “I’m happy for you, even if it means I gotta let you be happy… without me.” Toni’s emotional delivery is devastating.
“Saturday Night,” another stunning ballad, is similarly raw and powerful. This time around, Toni finds herself entangled in an unhealthy relationship. One she isn’t ready to end just yet. “All alone on a Saturday night in a city screaming loud outside,” Toni belts on the chorus over Chris Braide’s strings-soaked production. “I know you’re wrong for me, but I don’t care.” While most of Spell My Name finds our heroine going through it, Toni closes the album on a happy note. A reunion with Babyface, “Nothin'” is a loved-up, retro-R&B ballad that will be played at weddings for years to come.
While Spell My Name leans heavily into R&B sounds of the past, there are a couple of nods to current trends. Toni’s collaboration with H.E.R., “Gotta Move On,” slides into the minimalism of 2020 — at least until the unexpected guitar solo kicks in. Soundz molds the production to fit Toni’s vocal style, leaving it to H.E.R. to sprinkle in a little extra spice. It’s proof that the enduring hitmaker can still hold her own with the new generation. “Fallin'” is another forward-thinking gem that charms with its mellow approach and stream-of-consciousness lyrics.
The album is less successful, however, when Toni tries to up the tempo. As fun as “Dance” is, the production sounds a little tired, while the remix of “Do It” — a perfectly enjoyable mid-tempo moment in its original form — comes across as something of a relic. The title track and booty call-themed “O.V.E.Rr” are more or less on-trend, but the execution is underwhelming. Ultimately, these missteps do little to diminish the pleasure of Spell My Name. Toni has given us an R&B album to savor with songs for every stage of a relationship, from the initial rush to the bitter end.