Face, can we talk? How come we still haven’t seen a multi-CD retrospective box set, how long we got to wait? What’s the Deele-yo? Nearly three decades into a celebrated career earmarked by three consecutive production Grammys, the Indianapolis-born icon of slick slow jams and genteel funk seems to have checked into Classic Songwriters’ purgatory along with pals like David Foster and Diane Warren. Hip-hop is the obvious culprit: Street cred has backed emotional r&b into a corner. But don’t rule out his solo ambitions either. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds may have gone multi-platinum with the Essence Festival set, but 16 years of minor solo releases have undercut the magnitude of his behind-the-glass creative output.
In the mid 1980s Babyface wrested the baton away from Lionel Richie to redefine the black balladeer for the digital era as a multitasking übermensch (a template R. Kelly would later elaborate). Super-prolific producer and composer Face ascended to iconic status as LaFace Records co-founder; film, TV, and theater impresario; and Bill Clinton confidant. Soul enthusiasts who refer to “classic Face” wax sentimental over his stylistic apex, roughly spanning 1987 to 1999, when he’d churn out smooth urban ballads of modulating emotion, melodic breadth, and harmonic sophistication, influenced by Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, the Isleys, Ashford & Simpson, and Bell-Creed, but also Sager-Hamlisch, Michael Masser, Barry Manilow, James Taylor, and David Gates of Bread. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Babyface’s classic period ran parallel to the literary boom in black romantic pulp that began in the mid 1980s. Not surprisingly, then, he reached his creative apotheosis with 1995’s anthem-driven soundtrack to Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, where he uncannily evolved into a Y chromosome channeler for finger- snappin’ sistagurl melodrama. Even at his best, it’s always been women who’ve taken him over the top: platinum-throated divas like Mary J. and Toni (not to mention hardly working divos like Tevin Campbell and biological bro Kevon Edmonds). Comparatively, Face’s solo releases—pewtered by his humdrum, affected tenor—come off as dexterous but unmemorable, even 1996’s well-crafted The Day.
Grown & Sexy, his eighth studio album, is intended to make the world forget 2001’s Face 2 Face, a calculated attempt at hip-ification through rap cameos and cursing. Dusting off the 1990s synthesizers and reuniting Face with longtime partner Daryl Simmons, Grown & Sexy is squarely aimed at nostalgic female fans who want more than the juvenile affection that passes for sentiment on today’s urban radio. But 47-year-old Face’s self-conscious cool seems formulaic and awkward. “Mad, Sexy, Cool” is torpedoed by a behind-the-curve lyric and a microwaved melody; “Tonight It’s Going Down” tries to tailgate R. Kelly’s hit-making machine yet digitizes his vocals so egregiously that it summons Keith Sweat circa 1997. The second half proves that Face can crank out sturdy, sensuous tunes in his sleep—wistful “Drama, Love and ‘lationships” and Mayfield-esque stepper “Good to Be in Love” come bubble- wrapped in quiet-storm sleekness. But Grown & Sexy lacks three crucial ingredients: dynamic, variegated melodies; the rich conceptual imagery that defined past hits like “Take a Bow” and “I’ll Make Love to You”; and the pyrotechnical stamp of a soulful chanteuse.
In 2004 Arista abruptly withdrew A Love Story, an intriguing and superior concept album that shares three tunes with Grown & Sexy. The cooks in the kitchen should have left well enough alone: The new album’s wallpaper ambience will never convince nonbelievers that Babyface deserves to be revered—or remembered—as the most impressive producer of the ’80s and ’90s. But Face’s C game remains sharper than most folks’ A game, which is why Grown & Sexy is nowhere near the end of the road for our übermensch . It’s more like a fork. If he needs direction, Face should call up former collaborator Whitney Houston, whose current adventures in reality TV schadenfreude are grating the airwaves, and the two can MapQuest their way out of imminent irrelevancy together.