Toni Braxton - Sex & Cigarettes (2018)

Toni Braxton
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Toni Braxton – Sex & Cigarettes

Brief and to the point at a smooth 30 minutes, the eight-tracks of Sex & Cigarettes represent the first full length album by singer-songwriter Toni Braxton since her Grammy-winning duet album with longtime collaborator Babyface. It’s also her first solo project in eight years since the dismal selling, but creatively interesting Pulse. Starting off strong with two commercial singles, “Deadwood” (#34 R&B/#7 Adult R&B) and “Long As I Live” (#46 R&B/#13 Adult R&B), and one promotional remix single for the #1 Dance hit, “Coping,” anticipation for Braxton’s latest project rang high.

Toni Braxton – Sex & Cigarettes

Brief and to the point at a smooth 30 minutes, the eight-tracks of Sex & Cigarettes represent the first full length album by singer-songwriter Toni Braxton since her Grammy-winning duet album with longtime collaborator Babyface. It’s also her first solo project in eight years since the dismal selling, but creatively interesting Pulse. Starting off strong with two commercial singles, “Deadwood” (#34 R&B/#7 Adult R&B) and “Long As I Live” (#46 R&B/#13 Adult R&B), and one promotional remix single for the #1 Dance hit, “Coping,” anticipation for Braxton’s latest project rang high.

Musically, on the ballad and mid-tempo groove heavy Sex & Cigarettes there is something sonically pleasing here by the woman who once reigned supreme as the heir apparent to UAC artists like Anita Baker with albums that sold in the tens of millions. Lyrically, there is something more in the realm of disappointment, as the 50-year-old artist tries desperately for relevancy not through a veteran’s skill and awe-inspiring arrangements, but through coarse language and clichéd themes of relationships gone wrong.

It should be said from the outset that Toni Braxton sounds good on these tear-soaked tracks. She’s not trying too hard, but Braxton hasn’t put much effort in singing beyond her lower register and middle range in a generation. The arrangements aren’t demanding, but Braxton hasn’t worked with arrangers that have put her once multi-octave range through the paces since her trifecta run of hits from 1993 to 2000, before the quality of her output fell to a Braxton who’d privilege her sexiness to the once show-stopping uniqueness of her instrument. The sex kitten cover of Sex & Cigarettes indicates more of the same, as does its “never let them see you sweat” contents. The result is a series of smoky, cooing, and sensual voiced slow jams written in similar keys that lend themselves to a cohesive, but ultimately uninspired collection.

To its credit, Sex & Cigarettes never sounds dated and only one song, “Missin’” (a track no one will miss), carries away our beloved songbird all the way over to the depressingly familiar trap-tinged melodies that dominate much of urban music today. Much of it falls into the middling contemporary pop balladry of artists like John Legend, such as her duet with Colbie Caillat, “My Heart.” Soft songs that are cotton candy to the ear in the way muzak or smooth jazz sometimes is; music that never builds, never creates tension, and never rises much more than a half octave above where it started. Remorseful songs like “Sorry” that demonstrate a tough Toni (we know this because she growls and comes harder on the consonants) comes across a little better thanks to layered, harmonic productions by Frederik Ball, Paul Boutin, and Braxton herself. The trio repeat this feat much more convincingly on the country fried “Deadwood,” co-written by Kwame Ogoo and Royce Doherty, which also proves one of the album’s two high watermarks. The other is the only song where Braxton actually tries to break free of her own vocal ennui, the currently slow burning chart climber, “Long As I Live” (another song of pain and remorse…oy). Based on these three solid if not supremely exceptional cuts, perhaps Braxton, Boutin, and Ball should’ve written and produced the whole album, given how little the rest has going for it.

The songs that are tougher to swallow tend to be those with the most writers and producers involved. “FOH,” undercut by Braxton’s multiple F-bombs and reference to “bitches,” boasts five writers and four producers for what is essentially a standard issue piano ballad that inexplicably includes veterans like Babyface and Darryl Simmons. The equal confounding “Sex and Cigarettes” too has five writers and three producers, including the young and in-demand Kevin E. Ross. The Beyoncé circa 2013 toned torch song about a cheating partner is also nothing more than the usual pop piano ballad juxtaposed against street-ish braggadocio “about not giving a fuq” that no one is really buying. Apparently, the more writers there are, the more minimalist, coarse, and depressingly routine the song. At least the title track has some nice strings.  

Braxton fans who just want to hear their favorite alto turned tenor deliver something smooth and palatable to the ear will likely enjoy most of this edible short set. I just wouldn’t recommend leaning in too close to the speakers to try make out the diction of what those low-toned coos are actually saying. Of course, there’s not much there you haven’t heard before on a Mona Scott Young VH-1 production…or a street corner argument on the wrong side of town. But, still… Modestly recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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