Few fans of music from the ‘90s would have much issue spelling Toni Braxton’s name without her command to do so via her latest album title. Younger audiences primarily familiar with her from the reality TV series Braxton Family Values likely are clued in, as well. Still, given her off and on success in music since the turn of the millennium (following a decade of consistent hitmaking), it’s understandable that she’d desire to make an impactful statement with her ninth CD, Spell My Name.
The reality is that, despite a couple of moments of melodic and rhythmic satiation, this album does little to further Braxton’s relevance in the modern musical landscape. Although she hits the mark with relevant and relatable lyrics on several occasions, the songs by and large fail to make a lasting impact in the course of trying to sound current. A marked exception lies in the opening “Dance,” a feel-good uptempo ditty solidified with a tight rhythm section and effortlessly flowing Braxton vocals. After that, Spell My Name gradually slips into uninspired territory with a few interesting beats and lines here and there—but nothing likely to draw any but her most ardent fans back for repeated listens.
“Do It,” the album’s first single featuring Missy Elliott, is convincing in its message of breaking free from the chains of male manipulation, although the original solo version (also included) is more effective in its pared-down arrangement. Braxton’s signature tone and phrasing breathe more naturally in this context. The subsequent “Gotta Move On” benefits from the injection of a notable electric guitar solo by H.E.R., but never establishes any memorable dynamic qualities in the melody or vocal departments.
Braxton falls victim to the sort of pandering to a younger demographic she embraced on previous flops More Than a Woman and Libra on Spell My Name’s title cut. Opening with an unremarkable vocal by Johnny Yukon, the song explores Braxton’s affinity for a younger lover while affirming her sensual desires. Unfortunately, the juvenile chorus and unimaginative lyrics do little to make her case convincingly. While “Fallin’” and “O.V.E.Rr.” come and go quickly without consequence, the ballads “Happy Without Me” and “Saturday Night” are more significant. Though neither quite reaches the desired apex, Braxton’s emotional investment is apparent and offers a glimpse of the depth she’s poured into past hits.
The album’s closing track, “Nothin’” (inexplicably listed as a bonus), is unsurprisingly its most distinctive selection. Co-written and co-produced by Babyface, the tune’s bluesy guitar strains and vocal lines mesh ideally with its straightforward lyrics and palatable chorus. Whether this cut and the aforementioned “Dance” and “Do It” warrant purchasing Spell My Name depends on the listener’s loyalty. Most fans of time-honored soul music are rooting for Braxton. Having endured far more than her fair share of personal struggles over the years, her persistence in music is honorable. Regrettably, her latest effort struggles considerably to present effective evidence of her talent. Not recommended.