Toni Braxton, Spell My Name (Island)

While the term R&B has meant many things over the years, it’s come to denote music that stimulates, reacts to, and cautiously studies desire — music that makes room for interiority in the public sphere. The albums reviewed below inhabit that space with relish. 

Toni Braxton: Spell My Name (Island)

Enjoying a late-career resurgence after laying low for most of the 2000s, Toni Braxton has settled into a restrained, grown-up R&B sound that’s less a throwback to than an ongoing refinement of her ’90s pop style.

Braxton’s singing has always simmered, but in the past decade or so it’s reached an unprecedented richness. Deep and mournful, aching with concealed layers of feeling, her voice has assumed a dryly chalky quality — if wine could sing, it would sound like Braxton. Hers is a voice of desire and suffering, but also of adult wisdom and the struggle to retain it: she’s more guarded now, having learned from experience, which only accentuates the pain when she inevitably falls in love again. 

This third entry in a sequence that also includes her Babyface collaboration, Love, Marriage & Divorce (2014), and her solo Sex and Cigarettes (2018) follows what has become her familiar template: it’s short, tight, and dominated by slow ballads, with one or two pop bangers thrown in for variety (most prominently, the diluted disco of “Dance”). Arranged with expert restraint, the feathery electrobeats and synthetic strings conjure a warm, smoky setting where her voice can burn, with a minimum of distracting lyrical and sonic details. The album’s novelty stems mainly from unexpected guest features, including Missy Elliott’s eager verse on “Do It” and H.E.R.’s guitar solo on “Gotta Move On.” 

Since Braxton has long since proven herself an R&B queen who can get away with whatever extravagant conceit she wants, the album’s preponderance of ballads seems overly cautious — especially as it repeats wedding tropes she explored with greater complexity on Love, Marriage & Divorce (“Happy Without Me”). The keepers are the title track; a duet with an uncredited male singer (maybe Johnny Yukon?) who plays a younger man enamored with Braxton’s charisma and her celebrity (she demands he spell her name, helpfully instructing: “T-O-N-I B-R-A-X-T-O-N”); and “Saturday Night,” in which she belts “Tonight” — the most important word in pop — with magisterial fervor.

Having established her formal command, she’s become too comfortable with sadness; a voice as lavish as hers could inhabit every mood imaginable. More duets might cheer her up, especially with guys who spell her name. 

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour (Parkwood/Columbia)

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour (Parkwood/Columbia)

Chloe and Halle Bailey started as Beyoncé proteges, equally talented as singers and actors, and poised for multimedia stardom. Their debut, The Kids Are Alright (2018), was lively but mild in the fashion of much alternative R&B, overly entranced by the formless ethereality of Solange and Blood Orange. Their second album realizes their sharp, smooth pop style. Here, they embrace greater formal definition, as the whole album expands on the crisp sound of the debut’s official banger, “Hi Lo.” 

The mix of trap beats and breathy vocals is key; over a skeletal frame, they build a rich textural swirl. Chloe’s production enhances the skittering snare drums and keyboard loops of trap with softer, weirder touches, glassy electronic shudders, and muffled metallic hisses; meanwhile, the sisters blend their voices, sighing and gasping at each other with exquisite timing through a vocal hall of mirrors. Such quietly masterful music — chill bedecked with warmth, solid popcraft tweaked with experimental curiosity, upbeat introspection and flights of fancy — produces ecstatic tonal clashes. 

On “Baby Girl,” they sing an empowerment anthem and treat it like an aural revel, as if true empowerment means the freedom to lose yourself in sound; the blank keyboard bounce swells, eventually subsuming a series of pitched percussive clicks and wobbles that twitch to their own rhythm. “Do It” glides over a scraped, flickering whoosh, as Chloe and Halle chirp a declaration of autonomy chopped up into individual syllables; each sigh becomes a percussive element, extended into whispered patter. The lyrics celebrate the sprightly, transient pleasures of youth — going out with friends, going home with strangers, and so on — but the sprightliest thing about them is their fidelity to the hooks. Even the more conventional relationship songs, which mainly serve as endearing proof of human fallibility, have a beguiling electric sheen. 

Simultaneously delicate and sumptuous, this album carves out contemplative bubbles inside larger pop structures. It takes confidence to make gestures so subtle.

Ariana Grande, Positions (republic)

Ariana Grande: Positions (Republic)

An inconsistent if often marvelous belter of pop anthems through most of the 2010s, Ariana Grande suddenly reached an extreme creative peak in 2018 and is still going, having released her three best albums (including this one) over the past three years. Positions, whose erotic contortions live up to the album’s title, is like a warm electronic blanket.

Without ever leaving pop’s thematic realm, Grande’s previous two albums, Sweetener (2018) and thank u next (2019), achieved a rare conceptual focus, especially when considered in tandem: by following an album about the pleasures of being coupled with one about the pleasures of being alone, she suggested that these were arbitrary states, that one was as good as the other, and that happiness and direction must be found internally (although she phrased these messages more elegantly). It was time for a sex album, and so Positions glides with relaxed inevitability.

More coy and less didactic than before, it’s rarely explicit but it abounds with innuendo; and whether or not you find her entendres clever (“34+35,” say), her delight in what she considers clever amuses. Where once she swooped and soared, flaunting her ability to hit high notes, Grande’s warmly buttery soprano is cozier now, suggesting a singer who loves to perform but would just as soon curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and a movie. The album evokes lazing around the house on a sleepy weekend, maybe drinking some coffee, having a little sex, doing whatever’s refreshing. The soft contours of the music — velvety strings, keyboard hooks blurred into a haze, trap drum machines providing a crucial solidity — envelop her voice with precision. 

Since admissions of kink usually indicate a performer’s anxiety about being seen as an adult, the album’s unruffled ease startles; and as Grande’s best songs have often resembled nesting dolls filled with paradoxes about communication, the album’s direct simplicity feels earned. It peaks with “My Hair,” where she lets her hair down literally and figuratively, ending in a series of ghostly high notes that upend the melody

Having learned the emotional lessons defined in her past music, she’s now free to enjoy her mastery. This album breathes calm and glee.

K. Michelle, All Monsters Are Human (eOne)

K. Michelle: All Monsters Are Human (eOne)

So conventional there’s no one like her, K. Michelle sings from an alternate universe where a market still exists for adult contemporary R&B and pop remains a site for precise and detailed songwriting rather than vibes and soundscape. 

Michelle writes R&B songs like no one else does anymore: attentive, detailed, filled with writerly plot twists and grievances against men, contextualizing universal love plaints in an identifiably Black middle-class milieu. This album is her tightest since the mid-2010s, when she still conceivably could have broken through commercially. She’s since matured into a proper formalist, capable of releasing a collection of silken confessions this polished and forlorn every few years. 

Guileless in a way that disguises deep craft, she combines R&B codes of vulnerability and gentility that have lingered since the genre’s mid-’90s heyday with a certain blunt directness recognizable from hip-hop. The tension between these modes is her own. Nobody else would have written a song about fellow musicians Ciara and Future’s breakup that mentions them by name (“Ciara’s Prayer”); nobody else would follow the line “I need some new dick to help me forget the shit I’ve been through” with “I’m just speaking my truth.” 

“All the Lovers” soars over sparkling rhythm guitar and a sturdy drum machine, as Michelle’s belted chorus eventually dissolves into a near-wordless wail (“Where, whereaaaeeereeee”). “Table For One,” the big, climactic piano ballad, reaches a level of melodramatic masochism whose silliness only makes the song more powerful, as she dines alone and sobs into her napkin (“You didn’t reserve it, so you don’t deserve it,” she declares). 

The glossy neon beats provide a reflective surface in which she can study her heartbreak from every angle. Michelle’s fervent, smoky voice stings. One of the album’s thrills is surprisingly modern: how she modulates her singing electronically, adding little blips and shudders that sound like repressed emotions bubbling to the surface. 

A loving update of R&B tradition, this album unites disparate pop registers. Her professionalism is not routine — it’s a measure of total commitment. 

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...