Sex & Cigarettes (released March 23, 2018)
All right now, which one of y’all done gone and pissed off Toni Braxton?
Was it you, Birdman?
My fault, G.
Well, I’m not sure if the culprit is Toni’s new dude, or if she’s cleaning up the residue left from a previous lover but she’s got a lot to say on Sex & Cigarettes, the eighth studio album from the legendary hitmaker and her first on the Def Jam label.
Here’s the short version – she mad.
It’s been four years since Toni teamed with Babyface to deliver the criminally underrated Love, Marriage & Divorce – an emotional rollercoaster of love and pain. But as Toni revealed in an a few months back, “I feel like I’m older, I wanna say what I feel. I don’t wanna be censored.”
Toni’s never been one to hold her tongue – her music has long been an emotional conduit for her personal struggles. But her songs have rarely been as brazen as those presented here.
And I’m all for Toni as R&B’s new version of the Hulk. You’ll like her when she’s angry.
Toni’s trademark low register works well over the strings of “Deadwood,” a gentle track that can’t mask her simmering frustration. She annoyed her dude won’t pick up the phone, aggravated by friends whose only response is “I told you so” but she reminds us that “I may be down but I’ll turn it ’round.”
Don’t expect a lot of over-the-top production on this one. Most of the soundscapes are pretty minimalistic. The sorrowful, ahem, “FOH” features guitar plucks and not much else, giving Toni all the space she needs to completely wild out:
It’s been 47 hours, seven minutes, 30 seconds
And now you’re just responding to me
Boy, you must be suicidal
Is that b**** right there beside you?
‘Cause I know hell it couldn’t be me
Tell me who you think you are, how the motherf*** it start?
Say what, what’s it gonna be
The title track may be a weepy piano ballad but it also throws subtlety straight in the trash can, with Toni asking aloud “I swear you act like you hate me.”
But the album’s greatest standout is “Long As I Live,” which drips with the vintage Toni Braxton sound. It’s also one of the album’s most sincere tracks, as Toni grapples with the pain of watching her ex start a new life while she’s still struggling to pick of the pieces of their failure. It might be my favorite R&B track of the year thus far.
We’re currently living in an era of music where MORE IS MORE and with artists routinely dropping albums that run longer than a Harry Potter movie marathon, some fans may scoff at Sex & Cigarettes‘ short run time. At just eight tracks, the entire experience is over in about 30 minutes. But it’s a move that actually works in the album’s favor.
The mood is very subdued through most of the set – dragging that out for over an hour likely would have made the listening experience too dreary. And thankfully, the tracklist is pretty lean and mostly avoids filler. “Sorry” feels a bit run of the mill in the midst of the more daring material here and “Missin'” comes off like the requisite “midtempo tropical club track” that everyone and their mama is contractually obligated to include in 2018 but nothing falls completely flat.
Sex & Cigarettes‘ short run time and moody atmosphere might throw off a few fans, especially those who are constantly seeking a 90s R&B revival but there’s a lot to love here.
It’s no secret that some of the world’s greatest music was birthed through heartache. When a woman’s fed up we all win.
Best tracks: “Long As I Live,” “Deadwood,” “FOH”
4 stars out of 5