I'll be the first to admit that I had my doubts about Toni Braxton's latest effort Pulse, her first from Altantic Records/Warner Music after many successful albums with Arista and a forgettable one under Blackground/Universal Music. And usually the appearance of a Grammy-winning artist appearing on ABC's Dancing with the Stars to me is a sign of a career in struggle mode.
I have always loved Braxton and followed her career religiously from her debut, reaching the point of feverish obsession with 2000's The Heat, where she decided consciously to amp-up her sexuality to the point where she had to axe plans to release her own music video for single Maybe. The video's plot featured her undressing in front the window of her loft, while being pursued by a stalker who winds up getting intimate with her. She thought it was too risque as an after-thought. Maybe.
I finally had the chance to see Braxton in concert at Casino Rama, a couple hours outside the city a few years back, and it was a dream come true. I only wish I had forked out the money for better seats as she came into the audience and greeted fans by the stage and even sat on a few laps to which I would gladly agree!
Pulse is more on the down-tempo and although there is nothing quite as epic here as He Wasn't Man Enough, Un-Break My Heart or You're Making Me High, Braxton now is making music which is conscious of the fact that her fans have grown up and appreciate subtlety. A couple leaked tracks which surfaced as teasers like Darkchild-produced Get Loose and Melt, the former which won the praise of internet music authority Popjustice as its Song of the Day, did not wind up making the cut after all. Instead, we are given offerings which are eight parts Halo and two parts Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), and although Ryan Tedder didn't have a hand in producing this project, his influence is heard loud and clear on the disc.
Braxton had a hand in co-writing a majority of the album's tracks and particularly beautiful is the melodic Woman (produced by the kings of Adult Contemporary - David Foster and Steve Mac), catering to fans of her self-assured persona. If I Have to Wait has a bit of that southern-flare meets soul which has made her famous in the first place and Wardrobe sums up the experience of Pulse altogether, "switching it up if it ain't working out, Girl".
American Idol's Kara DioGuardi lends a hand on Hero alongside Harvey Mason (Mario, Chris Brown), who plays a pivotal role on the album as Braxton's writing partner. No Way winds things down with its acoustic soul, reminiscent of earlier hit Let it Flow and digging a slice out of that Sade pie. The album's title track is climactic, reserved for its effective punch late in the album and last track Why Won't You Love Me (featuring guest vocals by Mason) is classic Braxton - soulful, affecting and self blaming in questioning why "he" doesn't have the same feelings for her. What a Jerk! Hate him.
Toni Braxton's Pulse is in stores Tuesday, May 4, 2010. It's not her at her finest, but it's rewarding enough to win back the hearts of estranged fans like me. Grade: A-