Toni Braxton’s Libra: Toni Braxton’s Finally Toni Braxton!

Putting it lightly, Toni Braxton’s had a turbulent music career. She started off as a heartbroken R&B chanteuse who successfully bridged the gap between R&B and Adult Contemporary formats with her self-titled 1993 debut. Then she transformed into a more sultry version of herself, her heartbreak laced with subtle traces of sensuality on her 1996 follow-up, Secrets.

After a bout with bankruptcy, she came out swinging as an assertive yet still-sensual diva-in-demand on 2000’s The Heat. And then came a creative stumble when she became a mainstream caricature of herself on 2002’s More Than A Woman. And now Toni’s yet again reinvented herself with a new label, Blackground, and a new album, Libra. But this time, it sounds like Toni’s finally struck the perfect balance and found the niche she’s most comfortable with inside the realm of mainstream R&B; the comfort zone smack-dab between grown…andâÂ?¦sexy.

One thing all of Toni’s lead singles have had ample amounts of is attitude; “Another Sad Love Song” had a subtle sense of aggression and defiance hidden underneath the slick drum programming and Toni’s pained alto, “You’re Makin’ Me High” brazenly danced dangerously close with the flames of erotic passion, “He Wasn’t Man Enough” overflowed with sassiness and Toni’s confident swagger, and “Hit The Freeway” was laced with enough agitation and bitterness to make your blood run cold.

And Please faithfully continues the trend. Listening to the Scott Storch production, – staccato strings, claptrack percussion, and sleigh bells -, it’s easy to conclude that Toni’s still desperate to get in where she can fit in with the current new school of young female R&B divas. But even with such a mainstream atmosphere, the track itself is signature Toni. Like a pitbull in a skirt, Toni promptly cuts down to size any women eyeing her man, using her aggressive growl with such tact and class while working the song like a catwalk, ensuring that even the boldest woman will keep their distance.

Yet in a flash, Toni can switch the mood from sexy to grown, with a level of substance and maturity to boot, as evidenced on the self-penned current single, Trippin’. Proving that he’s taught his protÃ?©gÃ?© well, Jermaine Dupri’s right-hand man, Bryan-Michael Cox, mans the boards and constructs quite a somber and dramatic, dare I say even theatric, backdrop for Toni that would make Dupri proud. The strings, percussion, piano, and sirens all heighten the emotion and vulnerability of the track as Toni proves her worth as a songwriter, discussing how relationships thrive in chaos and how the imperfections can actually bring out the best in couples and make their love that much stronger.

And with those 2 songs right there, you have a clear representation of the rest of the album. The subject matter over the remaining 8 tracks evenly cartwheels between both sides of the love equation; Toni either praising her man and the joys of love or testifying against it and exposing what negative realities lie beneath.

What’s Good is a prime example of the former; B.M. Cox utilizing the Joe Sample sample that 2Pac popularized by using in his tune, “Dear Mama”, to help Toni discuss just how good her man’s love is (in more ways than one) and how she’s willing to do whatever it takes to maintain it. And Take This Ring is a knockout example of the latter; Rich Harrison taking the signature blueprint used to construct ” 1 Thing” (clanging drums, sporadic bassline, and faint strings) and tweaking a few knobs to make it just distinct enough to be called “original.”

But no matter as its easily the rowdiest and most entertaining moment on the album; Toni, while sounding like she’s forecasting her own divorce and threatening to remove the symbol of love from her finger unless her man quickly shapes up, is really just deciding that a married woman deserves a little fun in her life and is going to spice things up by feigning singleness for one night.

Midnite follows in the same vein, Soulshock and Karlin creating a mellow backdrop that’s prime for relaxation but contrasting it with lyrics that can easily place doubt in an already suspicious woman’s mind as to the whereabouts of her man, Toni playing the outsider looking and wondering, “it’s midnite/do you know where your man is?”. Then we flip back to the positive side and in comes the centerpiece of the album; I Wanna Be (Your Baby). Toni keeps good on her promise to always include a Babyface record on her album, and ‘Face completely redeems himself in my eyes by writing/producing one of his strongest records in the last 5 years (and totally eclipsing Grown & Sexy in its entirety).

Starting with nothing but smooth fingersnaps and an acoustic guitar, Toni’s husky alto just wraps itself around the atmosphere like a warm embrace, steadily increasing in intensity right alongside the production to the show-stopping climax, as she expresses her desire to be her man’s one and only at all costs. This is where classic Toni and the mainstream have a beautiful collision and help permanently restore any lost faith in Toni and her career.

Sposed To Be is more of the beautiful same; The Underdogs creating a smooth claptrack melody that Toni’s dusky alto just glides over as she breaks down just how wonderful her husband is and how truly perfect they are for each other. Easily one of Toni’s smoothest songs to date. A song quickly contrasted by the jazzy lull of Stupid. Quietly included in the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Toni allows her husband, Keri Lewis (formerly of Mint Condition), to create the jazzy atmosphere that shadows her vocals in such an understated light. Here, her problem with enunciation rears its ugly head and highlights how it can sometimes hinder her performance, the production strong but not strong enough to detract attention from trying to figure out her guttural mumbles.

Finally is really the only fumble on the album. Not because it’s bad but because it isn’t memorable. Even though her guttural mumbles are fixated here as well, the included lyric sheet reveals that the lyrical scheme is quite a creative run of oxymorons utilizing Toni song titles of the past. Too bad Toni’s mumbling and the mellow (read: boring) production fail to highlight such creativity.

But all good things must come to an end, and fortunately, this album does so the best way it can; with quite possibly the best ballad of Toni’s career, Shadowless. With nothing but a simple acoustic guitar (played by Nino Bettencourt, ex-member of Extreme), you get to hear every shade of pain and vulnerability in Toni’s voice as she pleads (in quite a controlled manner) for her man to simply come back home. The way Toni rides upon those guitar plucks like her life’s dependent on them makes for one speechless finale that will be a definite staple of her repertoire from here on out.

And so after 12 years and 5 albums, Toni’s finally made the album she’s been trying to her whole career and has finally perfected the image she’s wanted to portray this whole time. She’s been a heartbroken chanteuse, a sensual and sultry songstress, an assertive, in-your-face diva, and a wannabe young, hip and popular sex symbol. But Toni finally sounds and appears most comfortable and most natural in the skin she’s in now; a Libra.

Grown yet sexy.

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