What a tease! With a title like Sex & Cigarettes and a black-and-pink image of its lingerie-clad creator taking a puff of what looks like a Misty on its cover, Toni Braxton‘s seventh proper solo album seems to exist to titillate. The now 50-year-old Braxton even provoked on The Insider upon the unveiling of her album’s name: “I feel like I’m older, I wanna say what I feel. I don’t wanna be censored.”
But there’s little sex or cigarettes on Sex & Cigarettes. The smoking and fucking happen off screen—she tells us that sex and cigarettes are what her man comes to bed smelling like on the “When I Was Your Man”-esque, piano-dominated title track. But Braxton doesn’t describe what she was doing while her man was philandering, or what she smells like. We can only infer it’s the scent of teardrops, and perhaps some soothing aromatherapy that she bought at Bath and Body Works to spray on her pillow.
Yes, Toni Braxton’s heart has yet to be unbroken. Or maybe at this point it’s un-unbroken. Whereas the last full-length she released, 2014’s quite good collaborative joint with Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce, was an occasionally brutal meditation on dissolving bonds, the concept of Sex & Cigarettes amounts to: “I’m sad.” Braxton says little beyond just that in its mercifully brief running time—eight tracks that come in at just over 30 minutes. The title track can’t even muster a coherent thesis on being lied to. First she sings, “How can you love me and do the things you do / At least try to lie to me, lie to me” and then: “Remember when I used to catch you lying / You would double back and cover up your dirt? / But lately you don’t even try and hide it / it’s the lies and disrespect that hurts me worse.” So which is it, Toni, do you want the lies or not?
It’s disappointing that almost 25 years after her solo debut, Braxton has so little to say and seems so content riding on the Queen of Misery persona that defined some of her biggest (but certainly not best) hits. In the rare song that she isn’t presented as a vaguely rendered victim of her beloved, the sweetly beat-free and arpeggiated “My Heart,” she claims, “I gave you every part of me that I could / but the one thing I can’t give you is my heart,” without any indication as to why. A consolation for this lack of insight, I suppose, is the callback to her debut single, her O.G. duet with Babyface “Give U My Heart” (incidentally, Face co-wrote and –produced “My Heart” and another track on Sex & Cigarettes).
As she has throughout her career, Braxton sings the shit out of these songs. Her buttery voice alternately coos, moans, and trembles. She sinks her teeth into these songs, but also them approaches tenderly the way flames lick a piece of wood before they engulf it. Occasionally, this yields songs that can sit proudly in the legacy of a great such as Braxton: the Balearic single “Long as I Live” is yacht rock bliss, and the combination of tense ambiance (mostly via a piano whose sustained notes keep bending) and her flinging the words “Fuck outta here” from the back of her throat in “FOH” is delicious. But Braxton’s tunes here rarely warrant her gusto, and the coupling of virtuoso performances with rather mediocre material squares with Sex & Cigarettes‘s larger theme of the dissatisfaction that results from pouring one’s heart into an undeserving relationship. It’s a depressing album, but not quite in the way that’s intended.