In a decade that's elevated R&B; from loved-up swing beat to bling bling attitude and furious innovation, Toni Braxton's consistently played the grumpy older sister.
Too sensible to indulge in the diva antics and salacious private lives as perfected by Whitney, Mariah and J.Lo; too busy crying over her ballads to be fashion conscious, she's resolutely stuck to the 'Breathe Again'/'Un-Break My Heart' formula of quivering heartache. And with forty million album sales to her credit, who can blame her?
Despite being blissfully married, with a second child on the way, 'More Than A Woman' offers no let up in the broken hearts and anguish. However, the prospect of a fifth album of wall-to-wall ballads clearly didn't thrill her.
Perhaps feeling left behind or just plain bored, Braxton has gotten brave and ratcheted-up both the attitude and tempo. In principle this is a very good thing. The rare occasions when she's swapped whimpering for sexual ecstasy ('You're Making Me High') and strident no messin' ('He Wasn't Man Enough'), she's proved herself more than capable. In reality, her rebirth as an all round R&B; superstar isn't totally painless.
'Let Me Show You (Out)''s break beats work in some hip hop grit, while the thugged-out raps and pneumatic thud make 'Give It Back' the height of style conscious sass. But they're absolutely anonymous. Likewise, normally sharp-as-a-tack producers The Neptunes muster a slack handful of their trademark bleeps and hope for the best with 'Hit The Freeway', leaving Braxton sounding, bizarrely, like the product of any number of Neptunes imitators.
At least husband, producer and co-writer for the bulk of 'More Than A Woman', Keri Lewis, appears to know what's best for her. 'Lies Lies Lies', a sneering smooch with a slamming rock chorus, is both the best of her new look and the strongest track here- strident and sexy without being anyone's poor relation.
Ironically though, it's her more traditional fare that actually benefits most from the image update. With the bmp set to a slinky finger click, long time collaborators Rodney Jerkins and Babyface respectively rediscover their form with 'Do You Remember When' and 'And I Love You'. Better still, 'Tell Me' has Braxton all breathless and womanly over Anita Baker's 'Sweet Love'.
So while there's little here that'd give J.Lo sleepless nights, when it comes multi-platinum mid-tempo, she's clearly not ready to bow to the fresh faced likes of Ashanti just yet.