A lot can happen in four years. A kid can become a college graduate. Presidential administrations can come and go. Madonna could go through as many as five different hairstyles.
But that's nothing compared to the number of changes that have taken place in R&B; world. In 1996, Babyface was the hottest producer around; today it's Rodney Jerkins. Back then, the key to crossover was big, dramatic power ballads; now, folks want a different flavor in their slow jams. In those days, the gangsta aesthetic still seemed hip and edgy; these days, it's utterly passe.
Big changes, to be sure -- but not too big to pose a problem for Toni Braxton. Because even though "The Heat" (La Face 73008 26069, arriving in stores today) is her first album in four years, Braxton isn't playing catch-up with her music.
If anything, the Severn native is right on the cutting edge, thanks to the throbbingly propulsive grooves driving "Maybe" and "He Wasn't Man Enough." Where once Braxton was presented mainly as a balladeer, with "The Heat" she seems a well-rounded R&B; artist, as adept at working a groove as going for that big, diva climax. And it's definitely a change for the better.
And she can probably say, "I told you so."
After the release of her last album, "Secrets," Braxton squabbled with her record company, declaring bankruptcy and reportedly seeking to escape her recording contract. Among her complaints was that she had insufficient artistic control and disagreed with some of the things her label was telling her to do.
Such is not the case on this album. Not only is Braxton one of the album's overall producers, she's also listed in the credits ahead of La Face founders L.A. Reid and Babyface. She's also relying less on outside material and doing a surprising amount of the songwriting herself.
Nor are Braxton's tunes quite what her fans would expect.
"Maybe," for instance, finds Braxton letting loose with the sort of half-sung, rapid-fire chant that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is known for, while "Gimme Some" -- co-written with Babyface, Jazze Pha, and TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes -- contrasts her husky, insinuating vocal against an itchy push-and-pull drum program. Even the earthy mid-tempo funk of "You've Been Wrong" is a departure from the Braxton of yore.
Only "Speaking In Tongues" -- the one song on which the singer gets the sole writer's credit -- adheres to the model established by her early hits, pouring her dark, sultry voice over smooth, sweet rhythm tracks like caramel over ice cream. It's not a love song on the scale of her 1996 smash "Unbreak My Heart," but it's an effective bit of mood-setting, vividly evoking the non-verbal communication lovers use most.
It's worth noting, though, that no song on "The Heat" quite measures up to the dramatic intensity of "Unbreak My Heart." Braxton makes a couple of attempts to recapture that magic, working once again with songwriter Diane Warren and producer David Foster, but somehow the pairing doesn't quite throw the same sparks.
"Spanish Guitar," the first of these collaborations, is certainly an attractive song, but it's hard to find much special about it. Its scenario, in which a woman watches a man playing music and wishes he would hold her in his arms "like that Spanish guitar," is little more than a rewrite of "Killing Me Softly," while the vaguely Latin melody seems about as flavorful and authentic as Old El Paso salsa (the mild version). It's sad to hear a singer of Braxton's ability wasting her time on a bad-imitation Jennifer Lopez single.
"I'm Still Breathing" is a much more successful effort, although it lacks the broad gestures and overblown chorus that typify a Diane Warren power ballad. Instead, it offers a beautiful, bittersweet verse and a lightly harmonized chorus that lets Braxton undersell the refrain, so that the emotion in her voice comes across more vividly than the power of her pipes.
Then again, Braxton doesn't really cut loose anywhere on this album. Instead of showing us how much volume she can muster, Braxton puts the emphasis on color and expression, using her voice to tease and caress, flirt and cajole. It's not an obvious diva move, but it's devastatingly effective -- particularly when she's working with material as funky as "He Wasn't Man Enough for Me."
As with other Jerkins productions (remember Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine"?), "Man Enough" is such a perfect marriage of rhythm and melody that there really isn't a lot of room in the arrangement for the singer to play much with the chorus. Here, however, Braxton works against the background singers, moaning in soulful counterpoint so we get both the advantage of a straight hook and bluesy extemporization.
It's an almost perfect single, and an excellent way for the singer to reinvent herself. Here's hoping she continues to turn up the heat.
"The Heat" (La Face 73008 26069)