After being treated to an exclusive listening session of his newest album in London, Helen Herimbi sat down with Babyface and discovered the cool in him.
On his 10th solo offering, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds is returning to tender. On a surprisingly sunny day in London’s Soho district last week, select media congregated to listen to five tracks off the American high priest of R&B’s upcoming album, Return of the Tender Lover, which will be released on December 4.
“This is weird,” he nervously chuckled as he sat down to talk through the songs with the press. The session started with the screening of the never-seen video for his current single, We’ve Got Love. Then on the second song, Fight for Love, his signature falsetto sets things off with the line: “Love, what does it take to make you stay?” And it becomes clear.
Babyface is bringing that old thing back. Famous for labelling himself unapologetically R&B, the singer-songwriter-producer – who has made hits for artists like TLC, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and, of course, Toni Braxton – is intent on making love cool again.
On a typical gloomy London day, I meet up with him for a one-on-one chat, courtesy of Universal Music South Africa, and he’s just as suave as he was at the listening session. He laughs readily, is comfortable with the silence as he thinks about questions and leans in from his chair when the essence of R&B is discussed. He lives up to his chilled-out persona.
His smile slants to the side when I ask him about his state of mind when he made his seminal second album, Tender Lover (1989), which this new album is named as a nod to.
“I think I had a better sense of what kind of record to make at that point because I’d done the first record, Lovers,” he explains.
“I kind of just knew at that point, I had to keep writing about love and the more emotion there was, the better it would work for me. So I think it was being very honest about the music and the feelings and making sure that it felt good.”
Honesty about feelings is a common thread on Return of the Tender Lover. On Exceptional, Babyface isn’t shy to sing: “There are days when I’m mystified that you’ve chosen me”.
After Babyface’s first group, The Deele, toured with DeBarge and Luther Vandross in the early ’80s, the Face – in the iconic La Face Records (with LA Reid) – was always in awe of El DeBarge’s vocal stylistics. But it took this long for the pair to go R&B run for run.
Babyface says: “I thought I always wanted to do something with El. I had written Walking on Air already and had him in mind when I wrote it. Then his manager reached out to say ‘hello’ and I said: ‘What’s El doing?’ and he came by the studio. I said: ‘You got a couple of minutes? Why don’t you sing this?’”
One of the best songs on the new album is Love and Devotion, a sensual song that’s equal parts courting and coitus – “I promise to treasure you and love you down”, he croons.
So I ask him about the difference between older R&B artists skirting around sex and the younger ones being a little vulgar.
“Well,” he looks up, but I can’t read him beyond his shades, “Love and Devotion kind of made itself. I do like the old feel. The romantic, almost Billy Paul kind of thing about it.” Then he pauses. “You have some artists from the ’90s – like R Kelly – who had no problem going there!
“You can watch TV and that kind of talk is everywhere. It’s a generational thing to a certain extent. If a kid says it the respectful way, he might sound corny. Like, that’s not sexy at all. But if you have somebody older say it, they may sound like the dirty old uncle. So you’ve got to be careful.”
Babyface is mindful to always come off as respectful of his listener, which is part of the reason why Return of the Tender Lover only has nine songs – including a collaboration with After 7. “I believe people do 17 and 20 tracks on an album and people don’t listen to probably eight or nine of them,” he shares.
“They find their favourite songs and go with that, so I think I just try to write the favourite ones.”