Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.
“Best Thing I Never Had” by Beyoncé [Amazon / iTunes] (written by Antonio Dixon, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Larry “S1” Griffin Jr., Beyoncé Knowles, Caleb McCampbell, Patrick “J. Que” Smith, and Shea Taylor; produced by Dixon, Edmonds, Griffin, Knowles, McCampbell, and Taylor; from 4, 2011)
Robert: As a resident of Watertown, Massachusetts, last Friday’s white-knuckled center of the universe, Mike’s understandably taking another week off from ‘Face Time …
We talked about songwriting by committee two months ago when we listened to “You Don’t See Me,” a Babyface-produced track from the 2001 Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. That song had eight credited writers, whereas this week’s selection, Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had,” enlisted a mere seven — but six of them are listed as its producers. Despite “You Don’t See Me’s” merits as a pretty, if ultimately ephemeral, pop ballad, we were all baffled as to why it’d required the compositional talents of eight people, including the likes of ‘Face, Adam Duritz (Counting Crows), Jane Wiedlin (Go-Go’s), and Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, Three O’Clock). But if you ask me, that song was a work of art compared to “Best Thing I Never Had.”
From what I can gather, Antonio Dixon and Patrick “J. Que” Smith did most of the heavy lifting on the song, after which Babyface “heard it and made some changes,” as Smith told BET in 2011. “You know — a word here, a word there, a melody here, and all of a sudden the record had a completely new life. He is absolutely masterful at what he does.” Sure, he can be, and maybe he was when he built on Dixon and Smith’s foundation, but the resulting song is less than masterful. And aside from Smith telling BET that Beyoncé “had a couple of things she wanted to tweak” once she heard “Best Thing I Never Had” — which was supposedly enough to earn her a writing credit — I’m not sure where the remaining trio of tunesmiths fit into the picture, although Shea Taylor cowrote five other tracks on the accompanying album, 4, including the superior singles “Love on Top” and “Countdown,” plus a couple more on the deluxe edition’s bonus disc, making him the William Goldman-esque “script doctor” in this scenario, at least in my mind. “I need a punchup on the lyrics of this kiss-off song ASAP!” Beyoncé growled (again, in my mind).
So is Taylor responsible for lines like “You showed your ass, and baby, yes, I saw the real you” and “I bet it sucks to be you right now,” the latter of which is repeated way too many times in the song? Hell, even Goldman did some uncredited rewrite work on the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb Last Action Hero. Nobody’s perfect.
Jeff: I’m with you, Robert. This has all the hallmarks of a Beyoncé hit, including the attention-getting lines you mentioned, but the production is kind of a mess. It’s almost like Babyface is trying too hard to assert some personality here, as if he knew his main responsibility was to just get out of the way and leave plenty of room in the arrangement for Beyoncé’s voice, but he wanted to throw in enough sonic color to justify his paycheck. The result is almost dissonant in spots — listen to the opening verse, with that thudding drum sample colliding with the keyboard fills. Too many cooks showing their ass.
Robert: Incidentally, the drums — or rather, the drum machine — in Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew’s “The Show” (1985) provided the song’s initial inspiration, according to Smith. (You can listen to what he says is the original version of the song here.) But am I the only one who feels like he’s trapped inside an American Express commercial every time the strings kick in at the end of the chorus?
“Best Thing I Never Had” has been compared to Vanessa Carlton’s 2002 hit “A Thousand Miles,” which makes sense, but that song was probably never going to be played on R&B stations, whereas this one seems to be aiming for R&B, hip-hop, and adult contemporary playlists in a pretty blatant way without hitting any of its target audiences very well. I don’t know how much of the blame we can pin on Babyface, but “Dreaming,” a song he cowrote with Dixon, Smith, and Beyoncé that was included as a bonus track on the Japanese release of 4, isn’t much of an improvement over “Best Thing.”
Last month, in an interview with the Miami New Times alt-weekly, ‘Face said, “For a long time, we’ve had a tendency to go for the trend [in R&B]. And for radio’s sake, you do have to fall within certain guidelines. Because if you don’t, it’s very hard to break through. Labels are guilty of it and artists are guilty of it too, where we kind of just keep giving you the same thing.”
Does “Best Thing I Never Had” count as “the same thing”? I’d say so, but I’m certainly not an expert on the current R&B scene or even the scene of two years ago, when this song came out. All I know is, “Best Thing” ain’t doin’ it for me. Even the title feels wrong — maybe it’s meant to be sarcastic, because clearly the protagonist’s ex isn’t the “best” anything, but why not just call the song “Best Thing You Never Had,” which is already in the lyrics?
Also, I don’t think the video does the song any favors. For one thing, we witness a flashback to our heroine’s prom in 1998, where it’s obvious that her boyfriend’s a jerk, so she dumps him before the night is over. But if that’s the case, why is she still acting like “Ooh, I betcha wish you could have all this” on her wedding day a full 13 years later? That’s not a triumph — unless we’re talking about a triumph of tragically low self-esteem. You’ve got to move on, dear.
In that Miami New Times interview Babyface added that because the labels no longer have the kind of money or patience they once had to support new artists, “you’ve got to break the music yourself,” and “the key is live performance. In R&B, there are very few artists interested in picking up a guitar or getting on the drums or even having a band.” That’s what we’ve been saying, ‘Face! Or speculating, anyway. But isn’t it spooky how in sync we all are?
Jeff: Yeah, it’s definitely frustrating to hear him complaining about constraints when he’s spent so much time sleepwalking — and given that, for a period of time, he had enough clout to try and challenge the conventions he’s lamenting now.
He has a point, though. R&B is very trend dominated, and it’s been that way at least since the artists of his generation blended cutting-edge production with the genre’s time-tested songwriting tropes to create new jack swing. I suppose we could say that “Best Thing I Never Had” is the sound of a songwriter and producer being hoisted on his own petard.
Robert: I hope we don’t come across like belligerent concert drunks who only want Babyface to “play the old stuff.” (For the record, Jeff’s the one who would shout “‘Freebird’!” I’m more the type who screams out a particular song title over and over again until it’s played, at which point I cheer as if I’ve won a battle and then talk over the song about how wasted I got at a Luther Vandross show in ’97.) I’m still interested in hearing what he’s coming up with, like that understated but memorable track from Alicia Keys’s Girl on Fire that was released just five months ago, but the Fall Out Boy track we covered last week is probably the most energized thing we’ve heard so far from his past half-decade or so of production work. I don’t want to hear him repeat all his old tricks; he’s always been a good songwriter, so I have no doubt that he could find some interesting things to say about relationships and older but still tender lovers in his 50s.
It’s also possible that his best stuff just isn’t making it onto other artists’ albums. Patrick Smith told BET that ‘Face, Dixon, and he wrote six songs together for Beyoncé and recorded five, but only two were chosen for 4 in its various “deluxe” and “bonus” versions — Beyoncé, who kicked off her “Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” last week in Serbia, allegedly handed Columbia Records a total of 72 tracks for potential inclusion on the album — so who knows if the rejects were any better. (Did what I just wrote sound like the beginning of a fourth-grade math-class word problem? I hope so.)
Jeff: I don’t want “the old stuff” as much as I’m just curious to hear what Babyface would sound like if he were left to his own devices. Kind of like … I don’t know … an R&B version of Bob Dylan? You know, an artist who does whatever he wants and ages as gracefully (or gracelessly) as he feels like. If rock artists can do it, why can’t ‘Face?
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.