It would be nice for Toni Braxton if the title of her album reflected her situation in a positive way. You know the kind of thing: she’s had a lot of fun with a lover and now she’s laying back and enjoying a crafty satisfying fag, or joint, passing it backwards and forwards to her beautiful partner. But this is Toni Braxton and little has changed in her tormented, melodramatic and conflicted world populated entirely by good-for-nothing men. So the tremendously powerful and appropriately slow-burning ‘Sex and Cigarettes’ title track refers instead to the smell of her, you guessed it, good-for-nothing man when he returns home and into their bed pretending that he’s done nothing wrong. ‘We’re too old and I thought you’d outgrown this,’ she moans, truly one of a kind, in her incredible, deep, androgynous voice, whilst setting the scene for this taut and near miraculous return to form.
Toni Braxton hasn’t released a solo album in eight years and Sex and Cigarettes, her first for Def Jam records, only contains eight songs and thankfully little fat. Why the album is so short (it runs at just over 30 minutes) is a mystery, especially considering Braxton’s long absence and the presumption that this would have allowed for plenty of writing time and an extended period to experiment. Maybe Def Jam decided to tread cautiously and not overwhelm fans and hopeful newcomers with a 12-plus set of songs that may carry filler – who knows?
Braxton has made a career of the power ballad and the sensual, super-duper-slow jam. She is a global superstar and everyone will know at least one of her songs (yes, probably that one, but there are many others to chose from), but how do you return to such a disparate and overcrowded, impatient music market? Toni Braxton has made this look easy then, just by offering more of the same but with minuscule, and for the best part subtle, updates to her established sonic template.
Babyface, the close and frequent collaborator from the very beginning of Braxton’s career, returns here as co-writer and producer of the astounding ‘FOU’. At 2 minutes 47 seconds, it’s the shortest song on the record but one which makes the biggest impact. Against a distorted piano and little else, Braxton is a paranoid, destructive and cheated upon partner to a man who she claims must be suicidal to instigate these feelings in her and to treat with such little respect. ‘I don’t know who you think you are, I’m a motherfucking star!’ is a lyric that lesser artists would let dissolve into camp, and be certain that it is indeed a camp line, but in Braxton’s performance there is a sincerity which renders the sentiment both sad and wildly exciting. It’s show-stopping, yes, and even though it contains the now ubiquitous word ‘fuck’ (a first for Braxton) it is not cynical.
Album opener ‘Deadwood’ is a captivating soul song that manages to sound contemporary but also would not sound out of place in any playlist that included deep cuts from the 1970s by similarly talented and impassioned female artists of that era. Braxton is again wronged but is not standing for it as a clever and instantly sticky keyboard riff oscillates beneath her, whilst gorgeous featherlight strings fade in and out of view. ‘Long As I Live’ and ‘Sorry’ are more typically styled songs that you would expect from the best of Braxton, mid-tempo and highly melodic tracks that are timeless and will delight fans.
The album ends with ‘Coping’ and ‘Missin’ which both incorporate beats that nudge towards current radio (‘Missin’ is produced by Rihanna collaborator Tricky Stewart) but with an experienced elegance and not a whiff of desperation. Toni Braxton returns then triumphant, and Sex and Cigarettes can be considered one of her strongest and engaging records to date.