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Toni Braxton: Pulse (Atlantic) 

It's difficult to imagine a singing voice sexier than Toni Braxton's—call it smoky, sultry, a calm storm, a warm caress or whatever. It's the perfect instrument to deliver the bedroom soul for which the Grammy-winning R&B star rightfully has become famous.

But Braxton, now a radiant 41, hasn't released an album in five years, making Pulse a treat for fans who'd come to rely on her for slow, soulful jams that balance idealistic romance with modern-woman confidence. Some of Braxton's successors—Beyoncé, Rihanna and Shakira among them—are admirable, but her return to the spotlight is welcome.

Braxton infuses some of the new tunes with a hip-hop influence that isn't entirely successful. For instance, the opening track, the perfectly decent kiss-off "Yesterday" (available as a single since last September), is smothered in a window-rattling synthetic bass boom that is not only painful, but completely at odds with Braxton's style. On the other hand, the carnivalesque assortment of samples on the uninhibited dance tune "Make My Heart" sounds inviting, and a wheedling, G-funk synthesizer riff perks up the otherwise sedate "No Way."

Braxton also indulges in old-school soul-pop such as the lovely "If I Have to Wait" and the dramatic title track, which begins as a simple piano ballad and swells to a sweeping, string-soaked epic. Meanwhile, the double entendre of the seductive "Hands Tied" seems like an illicit pleasure. Finally, every warm-blooded listener has to ask if her earnest pleas on the closing track, "Why Won't You Love Me," are a little ridiculous. I mean, who wouldn't?

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