Reviewed on this page:
Street Beat - Eyes Of A Stranger - Tender Lover -
For The Cool In You - The Day -
MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 - Face 2 Face - Christmas With Babyface -
Grown & Sexy
Working with his partner L.A. Reid, Babyface (Kenneth Edmonds) was
the only R&B/soul producer in the late 80s and early 90s who
could compete with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis commercially. I find
LaFace's productions a lot more stylistically varied and
melodically compelling than Jam/Lewis' - they produced hits for Whitney Houston, TLC, Sheena Easton, Reid's wife Pebbles, etc.
After splitting with Reid, Babyface became even more successful,
producing smashes for Mariah Carey, Toni
Braxton, TLC again, and the phenomenally successful Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack. Not
content with producing others, Babyface has released a series of
solo albums, which have sold a lot of copies but haven't had the impact of his best work producing others - his voice is pleasant enough, but sometimes lacking in personality. (DBW)
Street Beat (The Deele: 1983)
Did everybody but me know that LA Reid and Babyface started out in a makeup-wearin', Time-emulatin'
L.A. synth-funk outfit? I was just looking through a used LP stack when I went, "Hey, that dude looks like Babyface!"
An early attempt to capture the Minneapolis Sound but not a successful one: the robotic drum
programming (title track) and squiggly synth lines are thin and tacky, and the songwriting (most tunes are written by three or more
band members) is obvious ("Sexy Love"; "Working (9 To 5)," the overtime-averse answer to Michael
Jackson's "Workin' Day And Night").
Apparently "Body Talk" was a minor hit, but it's no better than the rest, slathered with kitschy vocoder; only a couple of ballads ("Crazy 'Bout 'Cha";
"Just My Luck," the one tune written solely by Babyface) hint at the team's chart-busting potential.
Produced by Midnight Star's Reggie Calloway.
Material Thangz (The Deele: 1985)
Eyes Of A Stranger (The Deele: 1987)
Produced by Reid and Babyface, who were rapidly establishing themselves as hit producers, but the songwriting credits are still spread around, which is not a good thing (the trite love song "Shoot 'Em Up Movies" is by hired gun Kenny Nolan, not even a band member).
The production isn't up to their standard either: the drum and synth programming doesn't show any particular flair (except for some groovy delayed bass on "She Wanted").
Lead singer Greene keeps working his Morris Day imitation, and it's no more interesting or amusing than before (except for "Hip Chic," which has lyrics so stupid it belongs in the Museum of Bad Taste).
There is some improvement, primarily because there's a whole side of ballads ("Two Occasions")... the dance tracks are abysmal ("Can-U-Dance") aside from "So Many Thangz," a serviceable Prince knockoff. Nevertheless, the only reason to buy the album is to appreciate how much better Babyface got as he went on.
Tender Lover (1989)
Formulaic dance pop, with so much in-your-face electronic
percussion (courtesy of Reid) it's hard to make out the melodies.
The lyrics are uniformly sentimental ("Let's Be Romantic," "Can't
Stop My Heart"), making the uptempo glitz more jarring. The band is Reid, Face, Kayo (bass) and Daryl Simmons (percussion, as "De'Rock"), plus vocal groups Troop and After 7 on one track each; Babyface doesn't
make much effort to differentiate one track from another, and
quickly gets stuck in a rut ("My Kinda Girl"). It's a shame,
because there are a couple of nice tunes ("Sunshine") that would
have benefited from well-thought-out production. (DBW)
For The Cool In You (1993)
Toward the end of his association with Reid,
Babyface was in a purely romantic mood: every song is a love song,
either slow or midtempo - there's no club dance track like "I'm Your Baby Tonight" or "The Lover In Me" here.
But he has a great ear for sinuous hooks ("I'll Always Love You")
and lovely, casual melodies (title track, "When Can I See You,"
"Saturday"). Synths are dominant here, with sax and guitar held to
one track each, but it's far from mechanical, and Babyface's voice
is clear, earnest, and fashionably melismatic. The one misfire is
the album's only cover, a smooth, sappy version of "You Are So Beautiful." (DBW)
In 1995, Babyface wrote and produced the Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack. Though he
doesn't sing any leads, it's probably the best single example of
The Day (1996)
Face made an all-out push for solo success here, abandoning his
earlier do-it-yourself style to bring in a host of superstar
guests: Mariah Carey adds backing vocals
to "Every Time I Close My Eyes," Eric
Clapton adds his usual bluesy guitar to "Talk To Me," LL Cool J raps on the hit single "This Is
For The Lover In You," an old Shalamar tune. There's also a top-
flight crew of session musicians including Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes and Sheila E., and backing vocalists including
Shanice Wilson. The only
trouble is, he doesn't have anything new to say: almost every track
sounds instantly familiar, without the engaging melodies and hooks
of his best work, and the lyrics frequently flirt with
cliché. The standout tracks are "How Come, How Long," a duet co-written with Stevie Wonder, with an affecting domestic
violence message and a magnificent harmonica solo, and the title
track, a sentimental look at new fatherhood. Everything else is
carefully-produced and unexciting: fine for background music but
really nothing to sink your teeth into. (DBW)
MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 (1997)
Another MTV tie-in album, with guests including Eric ("Change The World"), Babyface's brothers,
and Sheila E.
The good news is, the real-instruments approach makes the sound warmer than the heavily programmed originals, and it's
easier to appreciate the uncomplicated beauty of so many of his melodies ("The Day"; a medley of "I'll Make Love To
You"/"The End Of The Road," both huge hits for Boyz II Men). The bad news is, much of the open space is filled by
over-emoting guest vocalists: K-Ci and JoJo on "I Care About You"; the usually reliable Shanice
Wilson on "Breathe Again."
And though it pains me to say it, my all-time favorite vocalist Stevie Wonder is the worst
offender: his epic grandstanding on "How Come, How Long" ruins the tune.
Face 2 Face (2001)
If I had a CD for every failed "reinvention" of a pop singer approaching middle age, I'd be, well, me. Babyface tried to toughen up his image here, working with Snoop Dogg ("Baby's Mama") and Heavy D ("I Keep Callin'," a slippery ballad that's the standout track) and dropping S-bombs on several cuts ("How Can U Be Down")... ay chihuahua! A couple of tunes were written and produced with The Neptunes - "There She Goes" and "Stressed Out" - and other producers include Mike City (the gently grooving "Outside In/Inside Out"), and Buckwild ("Lover And Friend"). But Babyface put so much attention on staying relevant, he apparently forgot that his precise songcraft is what put him on the map in the first place: track after track is drab and glum, whether the mood is supposed to be celebratory ("U Should Know"), yearning ("Wish U Was My Girl") or angry ("With Him"). The only fun on the album is a couple of tracks where Babyface croons Curtis Mayfield-style:
"Don't Take It So Personal" (produced by Anthony Nance & Brion James) and the "Superfly" homage "Love And Friend."
Christmas With Babyface (2001)
Back in Adult Contemporary where he belongs, Babyface cranks out a warm, personable set of well-worn standards.
Working with fellow smooth pop heavyweights Walter Afanasieff,
Greg Phillinganes and Nathan East, he manages
to sell "The Christmas Song," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," ad infinitum, with a complete absence of shame or
guile. Try as you may, you can't be offended. "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" is treated as light R&B; elsewhere he dips
into reggae ("Little Drummer Boy") and jazz ("Sleigh Ride") bags.
There's just one original, "You Were There," which was written for the movie Simon Birch and doesn't have any clear
connection to the holiday season.
Take 6 appears on "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and a choir pops up on a couple of tunes ("Silent Night");
otherwise there are no guest vocalists.
Grown & Sexy (2005)
Produced with Pagani, this is a return to Babyface's early 90s style, with low-key hermetic production relying on
programmed drums and keyboards, and insidious melodies that don't knock you out on first listen but stay with you
("Tonight It's Goin' Down"). As usual, a few songs are driven by acoustic guitar (the self-produced "She"),
Phillinganes adds acoustic piano to "The Loneliness" (one of two tracks produced with The Underdogs),
and there's one dance track ("She's International").
Otherwise the arrangements are practically unvarying, one captivating midtempo love song after another ("Can't Stop Now");
if anything is showcased, it's his flexible pipes (another
Mayfield impression on "The Gettin' To Know You").
Don't listen closely to the lyrics, though, because his ear for catchphrases is way off:
"Drama, Love & 'Lationships"? That's a chorus? "Mad Sexy Cool"? Really? Eleven years after
TLC's CrazySexyCool? But when you're under the spell of a smile-inducing number like
"Good To Be In Love," you won't care.
Eight covers of AM hits ("Fire & Rain") and two new songs.
For the consumer in you...