In hindsight, it’s understandable why Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds originally didn’t like the nickname gifted to him by Bootsy Collins: “Bootsy just looked at me and said ‘Babyface,’ and everybody was laughing at it.” A nickname that once started as a joke to fit in with the other nicknames for the members of his then-band The Deele, has since become the moniker for one of the most important names in contemporary R&B.
Babyface has achieved a lot throughout the last 36 years in the music industry. As our Zoom interview begins on a Wednesday afternoon, I bring up only a handful of those accolades: a 12-time Grammy Award winner, a Hollywood Walk of Fame recipient, and the man behind 42 No. 1 R&B Hits and 16 No.1 Pop Hits — along with his numerous A-list collaborations that include Queen Bey and the late King of Pop. Now, he’s preparing to release Girls’ Night Out, his ninth album inspired by — and featuring — a roster of some of contemporary R&B and hip-hop’s best women artists.
But to fully understand Babyface’s journey up until now is to hone in on the key secret that makes him such a revered and still sought-out figure: being an attentive and selfless singer-songwriter while evolving with the times.
“My biggest takeaway is to try to take your ego out of the room. Because if you can take your ego out of the room, then you can get far more done, and make the artists feel comfortable so that they can feel like they can be honest with you,” Babyface said. “Being honest in the studio is so, so important because it allows you to get things done quicker than going a long time…because you didn’t want to hurt somebody’s ego, or you had an ego about something.”
This approach is how he led his defunct record label LaFace, as well as the many beloved collaborations he’s done, ranging from the late Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige to Usher and Toni Braxton, the latter of which is a partnership some have compared to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Although he doesn’t like to necessarily revisit his work unless he has to — he shared that doing so leads him to overthink and question certain choices in his music — he humors me when I ask him about the LaFace-produced Boomerang soundtrack that jump-started Braxton’s career, most notably the song “Love Shoulda Brought You Home.”
Initially written for Anita Baker, “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” came about after Babyface saw an early screening of the film, and couldn’t stop thinking about the iconic scene between Halle Berry and Eddie Murphy, where Angela and Marcus argue after she confronts him about cheating on her with his boss (and former love interest), Jacqueline.
“When Halle Berry said that line, ‘Love should have brought your ass home last night,’ that was so powerful to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s got to be a song.’” After writing up a song he, Bo Watson, and Daryl Simmons were satisfied with, they asked Braxton to demo it before sending it to Baker, hoping that she would agree to record it. Unfortunately for them — but fortunate for Braxton — that didn’t end up happening.
“Anita said, ‘Nah, I can’t do this song. But y’all should have that little girl, whoever sung on that record, she should be on the record,’” Babyface recalled.
Similar incidents for other beloved songs associated with Babyface have occurred: “Every Time I Close My Eyes” being written for — and turned down by — Luther Vandross, only to become one of Babyface’s signature songs, and “Can We Talk” being written for Tevin Campbell, but L.A. Reid wanting it for Usher’s debut album.
“I wrote the song specifically for Tevin. I think that once it was done, L.A. wanted to have it for Usher at that point,” Babyface said. “The song was already done and promised. That was at the time when Tevin was also really blowing up at that point. I never imagined that it would do what it has done, or be as powerful as it is to so many people.”
That song was highlighted as a part of Babyface’s legacy during the artist’s Verzuz against New Jack Swing pioneer and peer, Teddy Riley, which helped to re-introduce him to a younger and newer audience. Wanting to explore that new audience further, Babyface decided to work with young, up-and-coming women in music, ultimately culminating in Girls’ Night Out.
The album, which features Kehlani, Ari Lennox, Doechii, Baby Tate, and Ella Mai (among others), is something of a spiritual successor to the iconic Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, which found Babyface working with some of R&B’s most lauded singers: Aretha Franklin, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston. But unlike the soundtrack, Girls’ Night Out finds him collaborating with the artists during the writing process, instead of just writing the songs for them.
“Initially, the whole process was everyone that would come in, we’d sit and talk about, ‘OK, what do you want? What’s going on in your life? Are you in love? Are you hurt? Did you go through a relationship? Let’s figure out what we can sing about,’” Babyface said.
“It gave it a different twist and a different feeling because this is a different time, new voices, new points of view,” he said. “So it made it more fun, and easier to do.”
Through the making of the album, Kenneth allowed each artist to create their song on their terms, and although certain collaborations with Kehlani and Ella were obvious choices for him, Babyface also relied on producer Rika to suggest other artists he should work with. Using the same process he’s relied on for every artist he’s worked with — listening, feeling, and emoting — he ultimately rounded out the rest of the artists he wanted for Girls’ Night Out.
“Do they bring you joy, do they bring you pain? I usually like to go with voices that I feel have pain in it as well because they tell the story better, tell an emotional story better,” he said. “It’s not always just how incredible they are in terms of how many riffs they can do. It’s like, how much do those riffs affect you when they use them?”
The result is an album that not only showcases Babyface’s longevity but the talent of the artists he worked with, too — whether that be the lead single “Keeps On Fallin,” which was inspired by Ella’s current love interest, or the second single “Seamless,” which Kehlani initially envisioned as a lesbian wedding song, but was transformed after they felt it was “too Disney.”
Having worked with current stars in R&B for this project — as well as being a pivotal part of R&B’s evolution — our conversation inevitably goes to Babyface’s thoughts on the current scene of R&B, specifically this idea of R&B being too toxic and ruining the genre.
“There was toxic music at the same time in the ’90s. I mean, ‘Not Gon’ Cry’ was kind of toxic,” he said. “It just wasn’t as hard as it is today. People can cuss in songs and use words that we couldn’t use before. R&B is just forever changing, and it changes with the times as well.”
Like R&B, Babyface is trying to adapt to the changes. The work that he has indulged fans for years with is a part of his legacy, but there are new chapters just beginning for this already legendary figure in music.
“There are so many places where you can reach people that you didn’t think you could reach them before. It’s exciting not just for myself but any artist at this point, about the possibilities,” he said. “I think for me, my real blessing is not just what I’ve done in the past, but the fact that I can still be here today creating more memories for people, and the future. So my chapter isn’t over yet — I still have more work to do.”
Kia Turner is a freelance journalist and music historian from Newark, New Jersey. Managing her album-based series Deconstructing or talking about Pussy Rap, you can find the Hoodaville princess at @ChasingKia on all platforms.
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