The news that Toni Braxton and legendary record producer Babyface have collaborated over an entire album may be surprising to 1990s pop music fans.
Braxton famously fought Babyface, fellow producer L.A. Reid and their company LaFace Records over royalties owed to her during her heyday when her recordings sold millions.
Fortunately, the pair (responsible for memorable pop hits like the majestic Breathe Again and the saucy You’re Making Me High) have buried the hatchet and put their experiences with divorce into song. This time around, Love, Marriage & Divorce has Braxton and Babyface actually singing lead together, though Babyface still produces most of the album himself.
The album title is an indicator of the themes of each song and how the songs flow together.
Love and lust start the collection. The subdued yet catchy opener Roller Coaster welcomes Babyface and Braxton back to the pop music world. Braxton’s deep alto, already distinctive from classics like Unbreak My Heart and Spanish Guitar, is as reassuring as seeing an old friend. It is also a refreshing reminder that a female vocalist doesn’t need to belt notes to convey emotion. Babyface and Braxton then purr as lovers on the soothing, pulsating Sweat, which evokes a tropical island escapade.
It isn’t long before there is a breakdown. Hurt You is musically reminiscent of the theme from ‘The Young and the Restless’ at first, before a thumping chorus features both Braxton and Babyface pleading that they never intended to hurt the other. The forgettable Where Did We Go Wrong has an awkward falsetto from Babyface, but is redeemed by Braxton’s tender performance.
The choice to use the same rhythm track as Marvin Gaye’s love anthem Sexual Healing on the solo Babyface track, I Hope That You’re Okay, is probably deliberate in reawakening past memories of love.
Braxton then cuts down Babyface’s sweet talk on I Wish, which she wrote herself. This song is the complete opposite to the conciliatory mood of Adele’s Someone Like You, with vengeful lines like ‘I wish she’d break your heart…I hope you’re unhappy’. This piano-driven solo track is a surprisingly strong composition from Braxton and an album highlight.
Braxton and Babyface attempt to get things back to the way they were on Take It Back, whose pleasant harmonies make a good soundtrack to a couples’ retreat.
However, the end seems inevitable on Reunited, which shows off Braxton’s belting and Babyface’s famous production more than the other tracks. Although the song recalls You Mean The World To Me off Braxton’s self-titled debut, lines like ‘say you will’ and the ‘business of love’ sound like clinical ultimatums and suggest that things can go wrong again.
And things do go wrong on the least Babyface-sounding tracks. I’d Rather Be Broke has Braxton singing ‘I wanna be through, so tired of you’. The disco-influenced Heart Attack is a clumsy attempt to sound hip and capture the drunken vibe of a club as the protagonists dance their worries away. Babyface’s traditional sound returns on The D Word, a sobering, muted end to the album as both parties to the marriage face the reality of divorce.
Braxton’s vocals are strong and Babyface successfully updates his trademark sound most of the time on Love, Marriage & Divorce. It is certainly a good thing that the album doesn’t run for too long, as the message of the album should still come through to listeners. It is too much to expect another hit on the level of Breathe Again, but Braxton and Babyface should certainly continue working together.