Braxton’s anticipated sixth album doesn’t cement her pop-soul superstar status.
Natalie Shaw 2010
Toni Braxton's career looked set for superdiva stature at the point of her biggest hit Un-Break My Heart, but since that flagship moment back in 1996 her career and personal life have experienced extreme highs and lows. The singer-songwriter re-peaked on Grammy Award-winning single He Wasn't Man Enough, but plummeted with a well-publicised bankruptcy and the cancellation of her residency at the Flamingo Las Vegas owing to continuing ill health. Braxton's sixth album Pulse – some five years in the making – is certainly a release shrouded with anticipation, but instead of sticking to her strength in ballads it feels more a trend-chasing American Idol semi-finalist's debut offering.
Pulse is at its strongest when Braxton's powerhouse vocal is given space to settle which, inevitably, is on the ballads. Opening track Yesterday is borne of the strength expected given the backdrop, soaring with each note of Braxton's resolute delivery. Woman is another standout track, the vocals unfussy and devoid of histrionics; "I'm not some girl who don't know what she wants," she sings, leading up to a colossal key change perfectly placed in the song's unassuming arrangement. This is a familiar template, sure, but Braxton's vocals are distinctive enough to stand tall, above the song at hand.
But in spite of this, this release fails to focus on Braxton's sultry, simmering contralto.The album misfires when its slower numbers are interspersed with uptempo tracks ready-made for the younger market. The brass-infused Make My Heart sees Braxton singing higher than her comfortable range, and Lookin’ At Me draws too obviously on Beyoncé's Halo, feeling similarly redundant for its too-high vocal and artifically-placed focus on young lust. These poppier tracks feel gratuitous, thrown in for measure to attract the younger crowd.
It's foolish to stray from a comfort zone into territory so overpopulated, especially when the upbeat numbers lack the shiny gloss and production tricks of 2010's younger RnB stars. Even during Braxton's standout ballads, the switch between octave-spanning chanteuse and pop-soul diva just feels wrong. In Pulse, Toni Braxton has thrown away the long-time-coming chance to cement her status as a true pop-soul superstar.