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Babyface: the king of the love-song generation is back

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I’ll Make Love To You by Boyz II Men. You’re Makin’ Me High by Toni Braxton.We’re Not Making Love No More by Dru Hill. You know when you’re listening to a Babyface song. He has been R ‘n’ B’s starriest lover since his second solo album, Tender Lover, in 1989, as the producer or artist behind some of pop’s biggest (and schmaltziest) songs — you’ve probably slow danced to them.

The list of artists he has written for reads like a dream Grammys guestlist: Madonna, Whitney, Mariah, Beyonce, TLC and En Vogue among them. On the subject of Grammys, he won three consecutive producer of the year awards, from 1996 to 1998 — and he’s won 10 Grammys in total.

“His songwriting is incredible, it’s probably the most romantic music written in R ‘n’ B,” says Rob Pursey of the hip-hop DJ crew Southern Hospitality. “He made R ‘n’ B seem luxurious. R Kelly, Joe — everyone else followed on from that. There were tonnes of people that came in Babyface’s wake.”

“He’s the quiet-storm king,” says 1Xtra DJ Trevor Nelson, describing the genre that encompasses the tender side of R ‘n’ B. “He started a whole genre in America of late-night R ‘n’ B power ballads. Not everything he did was good, but the art of songwriting, the art of writing a ballad — he’s got it down pat.”

Now, eight years since his last studio album, Playlist, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is back with a new record, Return of the Tender Lover. And as the 90s R ‘n’ B revival continues, a new generation of fans has emerged. His music has seeped into the culture of R ‘n’ B, whether or not the people listening realise, and his style is once again informing the work of today’s producers. Not since the ’90s has his influence been so prominent: it’s seeped into housemusic (Secondcity’s club smash I Wanna Feel samples Braxton’s You’re Making Me High, for example) and has become entwined with hip hop as rappers take on R ‘n’ B singing. You only need to look at Frank Ocean, Drake or Miguel to hear Babyface 2.0. It’s also gone indie, with artists such as FKA twigs, Tinashe, Blood Orange and How to Dress Well nodding to his production.

“I think everyone is a Babyface fan, even if they don’t know it,” says 27-year-old electronic-music producer Jam City. “I grew up hearing all his songs on the radio and it’s only now I know that he wrote them all.”

For Tinashe, meanwhile, Babyface was a huge part of her childhood. “I was always hearing Babyface songs around the house. It captures a very special moment in time — his music reminds me of being young, discovering CDs and going through my parent’s music. Music doesn’t sound the same way any more.”

So how does Babyface himself feel about a bunch of hipsters taking his music in a new direction? “I think it’s great, they’re looking for things that feel good,” he tells me.

From behind his trademark black Wayfarer shades, Babyface is feeling reflective about his legacy. “Had I not had the success of the other things then I don’t know as an artist whether I would still be around,” he says of his enviable credits, in a voice that’s so feathery it’s almost a whisper. “You don’t hear about most people from this period any more — not because they’re not any good, but because you can only stay in the game so long before people move on.”

For his new music, however, the 56-year-old grew tired of being held hostage by trends. “Today in R ‘n’ B, maybe it’s hip hop/R ‘n’ B, there’s always a certain sound you’re supposed to do,” he says, referring to new styles such as trap. He refuses to be bound by the rules, so he’s been touting Return of the Tender Lover with the tagline “unapologetic R ‘n’ B” — truer to the classic style he knows rather than what he thinks he should be sounding like in 2015.

The fact that his new album references the album that laid down the Babyface blueprint feels poignant now people are rediscovering his sound. Today, however, the image of the tender lover has all but vanished in modern R ‘n’ B. Sentiment has been swapped for swagger.

In October, Ty Dolla $ign released the tune Solid, with Babyface on acoustic guitar and in the video. He’s another of those artists bridging R ‘n’ B and hip hop, although his usual lyrical style couldn’t be further from Babyface’s celebratory depiction of women. That gap is something Babyface acknowledges, respectfully. “The truth is he would be a great R ‘n’ B artist if he was singing about love in my traditional way — it would be amazing.”

Even so, he recognises that times have changed. “I think that is part of working with artists today — they wouldn’t say the words I would say,” he says. “It has to be their honesty. Kids today are not as innocent, love isn’t as innocent as it used to be. Sex isn’t, I should say. Love is, but not sex. It’s a different world, so that innocence has to be approached differently for younger artists.”

But even among those younger artists, the devotional aspect of Babyface’s songs is making a comeback. “There’s not much [romance] in modern R ‘n’ B, but it is returning,” says Pursey. “A record like Miguel’s [2011 track] Adorn was a beacon of light among a sea of ‘[expletive] that [expletive] and it was very Babyface inspired — [it had] that feeling of sentimentality.”

Tinashe agrees and says Babyface’s attitude feeds into her own songwriting. “For me, it’s about trying to bring back some of that sincerity to music, both in lyrical content and in the general vibe that you get when you listen to it.”

Nelson isn’t so sure that a young Babyface could exist today because R ‘n’ B isn’t the dominant pop-cultural force it once was. “The love-song generation still exists, it’s just elsewhere,” he says. “The days of Mariah, Toni, Whitney — those were huge artists and they felt that they needed to do R ‘n’ B to get their credentials. Those days might be over. It’s like saying Adele is going to turn around and do an R ‘n’ B tune.”

After all, over and above the songwriting skill, the Babyface sound is also expensive. “You don’t get those sounds from a plug-in on Logic, they have to played in big studios,” says Pursey. It’s why, for him, those attempting to emulate it often fall short of the real thing. “What people call ‘alternative R ‘n’ B’, it sounds like R ‘n’ B but it’s not because it doesn’t give you that feeling. It’s simulated R ‘n’ B, I can feel the buttons being pressed. But on a Babyface record I can’t, as there were no buttons being pressed.”

Still, the current trends in R ‘n’ B are proof there’s still a deep-down appetite for Babyface’s style of honesty and fist-to-forehead emotion. “You could view it as cheesy, but it connects with the world,” Pursey says. “The population can still handle schmaltz.”

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