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Toni Braxton
MORE THAN A WOMAN
(ARISTA)

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After four albums of classy, urbane soul, husky-voiced siren Toni Braxton finally indulges her inner b-girl on her fifth full-length, More Than a Woman, which features production from an A-list of hip-hop producers including the Neptunes, Mannie Fresh, and Irv Gotti. Market forces definitely pushed her in this direction: with Whitney, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah all digging into hip-hopís bag of beats, Braxton risked becoming an R&B relic if she didnít update her sound.

As it happens, the hip-hop swagger gives her exactly what she needed: a bit of grit to cut through the saccharine sweetness of her quiet-storm soul. Eschewing Diane Warren melodrama and doing only one Babyface ballad (the orchestral pomp of "And I Love You"), she sings sassy kiss-off cuts and boudoir narratives around mellow hip-hop thumps and electronic burbles that seem custom crafted for her husky understated vocals. And unlike Mariah Carey, she never seems to be role-playing as a hip-hop honey. Sure, the Neptunes craft avant-garde synth-funk on "Hit the Freeway," but the languid vocals and woman-scorned lyrics are pure Braxton. Sometimes, a change of setting can make the familiar seem brand new.

BY MICHAEL ENDELMAN

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