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"Libra": Toni braxton
by michael heyliger
Poor Toni Braxton.

She began her career as the saddest
woman in R&B. With a husky, deep
delivery that cast her as Anita Baker's
miserable little sister, Toni set
the world on fire with torch songs like
"Another Sad Love Song", "Seven
Whole Days" and "Un-break My Heart".
As time went by, she morphed into the sad-singing girl who decided
she wasn't taking any more of your sh*t. Songs like "He Wasn't Man
Enough" and "Hit The Freeway" had a sexy swagger, Toni began
popping out of her once-tasteful dresses, and her smooth ballads
obtained more of a hip-hop texture. Fans weren't necessarily feeling
that, and each of her last three albums has sold about half as much
as the one before it, culminating in 2002's messy "More Than A
Woman", which found Toni attempting to be Mary J. Blige and failing.

After a messy divorce from her label, Arista,she finds herself on
Aaliyah's old label (Blackground) with a new album called "Libra". Is it
Toni's return to form?

Well, sorta. It's a graciously short (10 songs, 40 minutes) album that
finds Toni attempting to strike a balance between art and commerce.
While she makes concessions to current R&B production, she takes
several interesting strides here. Thankfully, she leaves the guest
rappers off of this album. The beats are a little harder than on her
first two albums, and she's dropped (to a degree) her
man-done-me-wrong songs (or at least, expanded her lyrical palette
slightly). This collection winds up sounding smooth, adult, seductive
and sexy: a mix Toni's been hinting at for her past several albums but
hasn't really done successfully since '96's "Secrets".

"What's Good" sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Trendy
slang title, and a prominent sample of Joe Sample's "In My Wildest
Dreams", the song which formed the musical bed for 2Pac's "Dear
Mama". However, Toni's smooth lead vocals (supplemented by sassy
backups) make this track work. Another unlikely match is Toni with
producer-du-jour Rich Harrison, whose recent smashes include
Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" and Amerie's "1 Thing". Smooth-*ss-Toni
over a busy Harrison beat? It shouldn't work, but, damn it, "Take This
Ring" just might be the best song on the album. Drums crash and
clang everywhere, and Toni's vocal is filled with drama as she tells
her no-good man that she's removing the ring from her finger. Yup,
the happily-married-with-2-kids Toni is still trippin' over no-good men.
Another successful example of this formula is "Stupid", a lovely
jazz-kissed ballad that finds Toni doing her best Anita Baker

"Midnight" picks the tempo up slightly but keeps the no-good-man
theme, as Toni purrs "it's midnight, tell you know where your
man is?" over a smooth, shuffling groove. "Sposed To Be" retains the
same vibe. It's no more than an ambient synth and some handclaps,
but it has a seductive-yet-classy vibe that only Toni can bring.

She returns to the sound that made her famous on "I Wanna Be
(Your Baby)", crooning in her dusky voice over an acoustic guitar and
snappy drum machines. Even if you weren't looking at the liners,
there's no way you could hear this for more than 30 seconds and not
recognize this as a Babyface production. Neither 'Face nor Toni has
made a decent record in about half a decade, so it's a welcome
development to hear them performing together, even if it's only for
one song. The spirit of 'Face lingers strongly over the album's final
track, "Shadowless". On this stunning track, Toni emotes beautifully
(and sadly...again) over a lone acoustic guitar. Despite how solid this
album is, one wishes Toni would unleash her voice over more songs
like this, unadorned by production trickery.

Overall, this is an impressive return to form for Toni. She's not
reinventing the wheel, she's just trying to strike a balance between
her true talent and having a hit record. For the most part, "Libra"
succeeds in striking that balance. Now, can someone please cheer
this woman up?

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