Multi-Grammy winner Toni Braxton's new album, "Pulse"

You have to give props to Toni Braxton. Closing in on twenty years in the music business, she’s definitely a survivor. She’s gone through bankruptcy, health problems, mismanagement, divorce and more than her share of label drama. Even if it weren’t for her reputation as a singer of torchy, breakup songs, you’d feel for the woman.

After starting her career off with a pair of smash Grammy-winning albums and a string of hit singles (most of which were helmed by Babyface), Toni has struggled to find her way commercially and creatively over the course of the past decade. Her material has been fairly mediocre, and she’s seemed a lot more comfortable following trends instead of setting them. While she definitely can sing and has one of the most versatile voices in contemporary music, her material over the past decade has been wildly inconsistent.

The material on “Pulse”, her sixth album (and her third straight on a different label) continues this streak of inconsistency. While Toni’s not lost a thing vocally (which is more than one can say for her contemporaries Mariah and Whitney), “Pulse”‘s material is decidedly B-list. There are very few songs on this effort that stick to the ribs.

In addition, Toni hasn’t yet figured out whether she wants to be an urban diva, a pop balladeer or a disco queen, so she tries on various styles, hoping one fits. Occasionally it works (“Make My Heart”, driven by an uptempo horn sample, is one of the album’s highlights). Other times, not so much. The most embarrassing track is probably “Lookin’ at Me”, which is a baldfaced rewrite of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. It smacks of desperation, and Toni’s both a) a little too old and b) a little too talented to be saddled with material that’s so reminiscent of B’s. Even when she brings in pros like David Foster and Kara Dioguardi (who co-wrote the uber-dramatic “Hero”) to handle some of the more ballad-centric material, the songs end up being hit-or-miss in terms of quality.

While a reunion with Babyface (who always seemed her most sympathetic musical collaborator) might be the best idea, it’s obvious from “Libra” that Toni needs to do SOMETHING to get her mojo back. I’m assuming that naming the album “Pulse” was an ironic act, ’cause there’s barely any life to be found on this incredibly mediocre album.

Grade: C

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