Here are a few facts about Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds: he has 11 Grammy awards, he has helped shape the careers of everyone from Boyz II Men to Whitney Houston to Ariana Grande, he scored the highest-charting album of his 30-year career last year… and he watches more television than you do.
“I have a list of shows that I watch, from Game of Thrones to Humans to Empire to Power to Mr. Robot,” Babyface tells Billboard. The singer-producer also names-checks The Americans, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Orange Is The New Black, Downton Abbey, American Horror Story (“They’ve got Lady Gaga coming in — that should be great!”) and about a dozen other current shows. “When I’m on the road, which I am a lot, my plane time is TV time,” he explains.
The veteran R&B artist is planning on hitting the road a whole lot in the coming months, in support of his new album, Return of the Tender Lover, due out in December on Def Jam Recordings. Babyface’s first solo studio album in seven years is a sequel of sorts to his breakthrough LP, 1989’s Tender Lover, and has been preceded by the buoyant new single “We’ve Got Love.”
Although Babyface — the producer behind smashes like Madonna’s “Take a Bow,” Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You,” among countless others — is ending his longest break between solo albums, he’s also coming back with some momentum. Love, Marriage & Divorce, his 2014 album with Toni Braxton, was a critical and commercial hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and earning the duo a Grammy award for best R&B album earlier this year.
“Love, Marriage & Divorce showed me that there is definitely an audience that’s still there and interested in R&B music done with quality and honesty,” says Babyface. The album’s Grammy win last February also served as a catalyst of sorts for the 56-year-old to focus on finishing his next solo project with producer-writers like Dayl Simmons and Kameron Glasper. “It was an organic thing where the songs came fast — I didn’t want to do too many songs, just an old-school album, eight songs, and just make sure they’re eight good ones,” he says.
As “We’ve Got Love” indicates, Return of the Tender Lover is a feel-good project built around timeless romance and live instrumentation. Babyface wants his upcoming project to nod to modern R&B music, although he’s also not trying to compete with leaders of the new-school R&B sound like Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd.
“I do love the Weeknd, and I love how, whoever he’s working with, they’re using pieces of R&B with other things that feel really great,” Babyface notes. “It’s promising in the sense that I think there are other unknowns that will come forward and get back to being musicians. I think more than anything, what I miss is the musicians being part of the process.”
With Return of the Tender Lover, Babyface is nodding to listeners who feel the same way. “I like to call it the subtitle of this record ‘Unapologetic R&B,’” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the kind of hi-hats or kick or 808s [sound]. It’s just going to be a real drummer, bass player, guitar player, piano player. It’s going to feel real good based off of musicianship.”
Babyface plans to perform behind his new album, and is currently in South Africa wrapping a co-headlining trek with Braxton. He’ll also perform on Oct. 16 in Newkirk, Okla. and on Oct. 23 in Phoenix, the latter for the Arizona Jazz Festival.