After a somewhat lengthy hiatus Ms.Braxton returns with her third set. Indeed, it has been almost four years since her sophomore set Secrets dominated charts world-wide on the back of the monster single “Unbreak my Heart”. Even so the past few years have been anything but uneventful. Rumoured legal wranglings and an historic role in the hit Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast have more than maintained her profile. But what of the album itself?
The lead single sees Toni tapping into the recent success of female assertiveness (TLC, Kelis, Destiny’s Child & Pink) with the hit single “He Wasn’t Man Enough.” Produced by the ubiquitous Darkchild, the track seems to be an attempt to make some headway within the lucrative urban R&B market. Further evidence of this can also be found on the jerky funker “Gimme Somme,” which features Lisa “left Eye” Lopez. However, in direct opposition to such tracks there are at least three moments of MOR schmaltz. Constructed by the Dianne Warren/David Foster duo, overly dramatic ballads such as “Spanish Guitar” and “I’m Still Breathing” are fairly uninspiring. Add to these the lightweight Babyface-produced “Fairytale”—which is thankfully less dramatic—and The Heat finds itself dangerously close to becoming an entirely formulaic and derivative work.
However, having said that the album is saved by five noteworthy tracks. The first of these, “Just Be a Man About It,” finds Toni once again questioning the status of a partner’s manhood. Co-written and co-produced by Braxton this song has a more melodic groove than “He Wasn’t Man Enough.” In a similar vein is “Never Just for a Ring.” The title may give the impression that it is just another piece of schmaltz, but in fact it is a rather tasty beat ballad. Questioning her lovers lack of fidelity the song features the embittered choral hook “Why?, when?, where?, how?, who?, what?, made you go off and do this crazy thing.” Interestingly, both tracks were co-written by Braxton and begin to show the emergence of some artistic individuality. Perfectly constructed to exploit the subtleties of her sultry contralto voice they are among the sets highlights.
Nevertheless, the three songs to really look out for are “The Heat”, “The Art of Love,” and “Speaking in Tongues.” A collaborative effort between Toni and Keri Lewis all three tracks are again tailor-made for her voice. Furthermore, much like the work of Keri’s parent collective, Mint Condition, these tracks are unafraid of showing substantial signs of individuality. The first of these, “The Heat,” is an infectious mid-tempo groove, whilst “Speaking in Tongues” is an extremely sensual affair with some warm harmonies. Even so, the album’s most personal moment can be found with the intoxicating “The Art of Love.” Indeed, featuring no discernible lyrics Braxton’s breathy moans and vocals caress your senses and leave you mesmerised.
Consequently, what we have is somewhat of a mixed bag. At times Braxton uses derivative material to aim for the urban market, but is then constrained by her seemingly unshakeable attachment to the ‘big ballad’. However, despite being largely formulaic The Heat offers some moments of quality. By taking a more active role in the writing and production of the set Toni’s material begins to be constructed around her voice rather than the latest producer’s sound. As a result we begin to witness the emergence of an individual, rather than a marketable package that is in danger of being lost in an overcrowded R&B market of highly interchangeable vocalists. Such input may not always be successful, as the lacklustre “Maybe” and the plodding “You’ve been Wrong” will testify, but she should still be commended for the effort. In many ways what this set needs is more songs like “The Act of Love,” “The Heat” and “Speaking in Tongues.” They may not set the musical world on fire, but they at are at least more personal offerings. Thus one can only hope that Keri Lewis/Braxton collaborative will play a more substantial role on her next album.