Many R&B singers have recorded music about their divorces, and every R&B musician has mined his or her love life for material. That includes singer Toni Braxton and producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
“Love, Marriage & Divorce” is a new album of duets from the frequent collaborators, who helped define the genre in the ’90s. It’s hard to imagine they have anything to say that hasn’t already been explored in their 50-plus combined years of experience.
And yet, they do. Fans have experienced the ups and downs of their personal lives during the years thanks to tabloids, reality television and their songs, but “Love, Marriage & Divorce” is a fresh, honest look at the ways in which relationships fall apart.
(Babyface married film producer Tracey Edmonds in 1992; they divorced in 2005. Braxton married Mint Condition keyboardist Keri Lewis in 2001; they divorced in 2013.) Braxton and Edmonds not only offer up an enjoyable listen, they let us know that it’s okay to think a breakup is no big deal, or to wish your ex good luck — but also gonorrhea.
The title is a bit misleading. The album is more about the divorce and broken relationships than it is about falling in love and getting married; the material about splitting up is not only more plentiful, but more interesting. The singles trickling out (“Hurt You,” “Roller Coaster”) are perfectly lovely songs, but don’t represent the tone of the album. Taken as a whole, “Love, Marriage & Divorce” covers every stage of a breakup with humor, wisdom, wit, occasional pettiness and self-awareness.
At a time when popular R&B seems dominated by breakup songs that only express a few emotions — despair, delight at having dodged a bullet or anger fiery enough to prompt one to commit personal property damage — “Love, Marriage & Divorce” offers a more nuanced look at calling it quits. On “Sweat,” a couple in trouble comes to the mature decision to take out their aggression in the bedroom instead of yelling, screaming and insulting each other’s mothers. “I’d Rather Be Broke” explores the idea that sometimes it’s better for one’s sanity to walk away from a comfortable lifestyle than to stay mired in craziness.
Because Edmonds and Braxton are longtime friends and colleagues (Edmonds even talked Braxton out of retiring recently, as viewers of the reality show “Braxton Family Values” likely know), they have an easy chemistry that not only results in some luscious music but keeps the project from being a downer.
The artists also trade off lead vocals duties, in a cool sort of “he said/she said” format. On “I Hope That You’re Okay,” Babyface expresses concern for an ex, offering the oh-so-grown-up sentiment that although it’s “time to call it a day,” he wishes her nothing but the best. “I hope that we’re good,” he sings.
Just when you’re thinking, “Wow, this is a really mature album! Adults can actually behave like adults sometimes,” Braxton responds with the opening lines of “I Wish.” This song, which sounds like a tongue-in-cheek version of Braxton’s signature ballad, “Unbreak My Heart,” is about not wishing one’s ex well. “I hope she gives you a disease, so that you will see,” Braxton sings. “Not enough to make you die, but only make you cry — like you did to me.”
On “Reunited” the pair sings about “getting back to the business of love,” but then Braxton stomps all over the idea of reconciliation while gleefully singing over an up-tempo dance track: “You know you want it back, that’s why you’re ’bout to have a heart attack,” she sings on “Heart Attack.”
Sonically, “Love, Marriage & Divorce” isn’t a big leap for either Edmonds or Braxton — Babyface is still fond of lacing his productions with acoustic guitar and wind chimes; Braxton’s ever-smoky voice is unchanged, and she still fills her songs with dramatic emoting. Even the album cover, a black-and-white photo of the two in silhouette, looks as if it’s inspired by the ’90s-era Time Life “Quiet Storm” CD series. But the throwback vibe that dominates isn’t a problem at all. Good songs about bad breakups are, unlike marriage vows, timeless.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.