Grown and sexy. The phrase aptly describes the audience that recently gathered for the taping of BET’s forthcoming Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds special. It’s also the title of the songwriter/producer’s latest album.
“It means being comfortable with who you are, where you are in your life,” Babyface says of the title for the July 26 J Records release. “That confidence is what makes you sexy. But there’s still a certain amount of youth quality to the record.”
Which prompts the question: How will Babyface’s latest fusion of youthful sensibilities and his patented, silky R&B fare with the public?
The answer four years ago was, “Not very well.” “Face2Face” featured a falsettoed and profanity-spewing Babyface getting edgy with Snoop Dogg and others. Despite a top 10 R&B hit with the sexy, Neptunes-produced “There She Goes,” the album has sold less than 500,000 units, much less than his previous efforts.
“The actual process was amazing,” Babyface recalls of “Face2Face,” whose release date unfortunately coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies. “I did mixed things on that, which was good. You can always learn.
“It’s still a very important record in my career. Things I learned about singing differently, messing around with how a song might flow differently… I wouldn’t have been able to grow without doing that record.”
He also stresses that while “Grown & Sexy” is contemporary, it features “classic Babyface songs tweaked with some of today’s production values so it can keep the same fans and still grab a new audience.”
In other words, there will be no major surprises as there were on “Face2Face.” BMG North America CEO Clive Davis “wanted me to do something with a youthful, fun edge to it without people asking, ‘What are you doing?!'” Babyface says.
Gauging by the reaction when Babyface performed the single “Sorry for the Stupid Things” and the album’s title track during the BET taping, people will likely readily accept the artist’s new music. Whether strumming his guitar, playing keyboards or just singing (and joined by brother Kevon on several songs), a clearly invigorated and impassioned Babyface fed off the love fest between himself and an appreciative, singalong audience.
Babyface’s early career success came with Antonio “L.A.” Reid (now Island Def Jam CEO) — first as members of the Deele (“Two Occasions”) and later as co-founders of LaFace Records, home to Toni Braxton, TLC, OutKast and Usher. Or Babyface’s own solo career, which took off with the 1989 No. 1 R&B/No. 7 pop single “It’s No Crime.” His solo hit list includes such crossover classics as “Tender Lover,” “Whip Appeal,” “Never Keeping Secrets” and “When Can I See You.”
Prefacing the performance of his new songs with his oldies but goodies at the taping, Babyface said he is as “shocked as anyone” by the scope of his work. In putting together the special and a short tour co-headlining with Anita Baker, he says he prepped by listening to his old songs with a fan’s ear.
“I heard passion; that’s what I think made people gravitate to my music in the first place. If I don’t do anything else, I’ve got to make sure I have passion.”
Which underscores the joy and drama associated with the love and relationship themes he has always written about. And “Grown & Sexy” is no exception. Writing again with longtime colleague Darryl Simmons, Babyface produced the album with Greg Fregani. In addition to the single and title track, other tunes include the tongue-in-cheek “Goin’ Outta Business” and the Curtis Mayfield-vibed “Gettin’ 2 Know U.” On “Business,” Luther Vandross’ heir apparent name checks the recently deceased balladeer in the breakup song, singing, “You can take your Usher CDs, I’m going to take my Luther with me.”
The hourlong BET special will premiere July 26 and will also be edited into a half-hour show, a video and a commercial spot. Set to air the various forms of footage are BET and its sister stations BET Jazz, VH1 and VH1 Soul.
The ever-busy Babyface is producing a Maurice Gibb tribute album that lists Paul McCartney, Jagged Edge, Sheryl Crow, the Black Eyed Peas and Rascal Flatts among its contributors. (“Even Snoop Dogg wants to come,” he says.) He is also working with singers Musiq and Calvin Richardson on their new projects. But he feels there may be another Babyface record inside him. “It might be sooner this time; I’ll cut it and see.”
Excerpted from the July 23, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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