R&B royalty Toni Braxton returns with her sixth studio effort Pulse in stores today. The married singer resurfaced on the scene with a steamy kiss with Trey Songz at the 2009 Soul Train Awards during their performance of Braxton’s first single–a duet with the crooner “Yesterday.” It seemed to many of us the 41-year-old returned cramming for go-to shock value in a business bursting at with seams with overly sexual lyrics and stage antics. But to the ‘Unbreak My Heart’ vocal powerhouse, the sex ploy is nothing new. Remember that barely there dress Toni wore to the 2001 Grammy’s? Or her steamy and very nude 1997 Vibe Magazine cover? It was undoubtedly the predecessor if not a direct reference for Ciara’s controversial October 2008 cover. Toni is without question that throwback R&B bombshell whose sex always came secondary to her vocals. We might have said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she wore that!” But we’d dare not question her pipes. Sadly these are dualities we could never draw for many of today’s R&B starlets. Beyonce? Maybe.

Toni is my favorite contemporary R&B singer. Whenever I’m in a “let me clean this brownstone” on a Saturday morning mood, I’ll put Toni Braxton on Pandora awaiting bangers like “Another Sad Love Song,” and “Just Be A Man About It.” And yes, I’ll admit my Swiffer Jet becomes my mic if “You’re Making Me High” comes on. In many ways Toni Braxton is an industry triumph. She sold millions of records. She pretty much ruled the year of 1996. She’s managed to have a reasonable scandal-less life– besides that little bankruptcy in 1997. She maintained a near decade long marriage to Mint Condition musician Keri Lewis before announcing their separation last November. She’s the mother to Denham (still shaky on that name). And when her second son Diesel was diagnosed with Autism, Toni became a national spokeswoman for the child disease. She publicly fought against her own illness, microvascular agina, a small vessel disease as a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. Toni brought a much needed Black girl power to Broadway in her runs with Beauty and the Beast and Aida.

Never one for diva tantrums, we think of the R&B star as a rare humble spirit who just so happens to have a sick body all these years later. Although her sophomore album Secrets sent her tunes serenading the homes of White America, Toni never crossed over and left us. Wouldn’t rank Toni at iconic status, but her select performances and music videos are staining memories in our adolescent years. Remember those side hair pieces in the “Breathe Again” video? Ha! Toni was killing them in a wedding gown running through a 19th century mase. Toni Braxton remains our girl, even after her minimalist plastic surgeries.

But today as the singer whose career spans nearly 20 years releases her new album, I find myself strangely ambivalent. Toni’s latest videos leaves little to be thrilled about. The hyper-choreographed “Make My Heart” video yields a “sigh” reaction every time I watch it. One CLUTCH reader said, “The choreography is phenomenal, but why do I feel slightly embarrassed for Toni?” Embarrassment. Pity–all familiar reactions when watching Toni attempt to compete with today’s stage youngters. We kind of hoped Toni would make the graceful transition similar to Mary J. Blige. The “You Remind Me” Mary hung up her dancing shoes after the “Love At First Sight” joint. Thankfully our embarrassment for Toni hasn’t extended to tragic Whitney shame. Toni’s raspy signature hits hard on her single “Hands Tied.” A early protege of Babyface, Toni’s ballads reigns supreme–undeniably her sustaining strength. Wondering what becomes of a modern-day R&B comeback? Soundscan numbers will read our most honest devotion– they always do.

Does Toni still have it?

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