A year ago today it was over. And 24 hours later I was fine with that.
On September 9, 2013, I posted what turned out to be the final edition of this collaborative series with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger. At the time I didn’t think it’d be the final one, but I knew after breaking up with my girlfriend of five years a few days later that I’d have to put ‘Face Time on hold for at least a couple weeks, especially since I would soon be moving out of the apartment I shared with her.
On September 24, the eve of my 38th birthday, my parents’ friends let me move into their basement, and though that may not sound like the recipe for the happiest birthday, knowing that I wasn’t making someone miserable for the first time in a long time, and vice versa, was a huge relief. Freedom can be a powerful hallucinogen.
But I never did get back to ‘Face Time during the remainder of 2013.
I was hoping that Jeff, Mike, and I could still cover Babyface’s songwriting and production work for artists ranging from TLC (“Baby-Baby-Baby,” 1992), Usher (“If I Want To,” 2001), En Vogue (“Whatever,” 1997), Mary J. Blige (“Missing You,” 1997), Sheena Easton (“The Lover in Me,” 1988), and Backstreet Boys (“Time,” 2000) to Aretha Franklin (“Willing to Forgive,” 1994), Carole King (“You Can Do Anything,” 2001), Lionel Richie (“Ordinary Girl,” 1996), Diana Ross (“Swing It,” 1995), the Isley Brothers (“Tears,” 1996), and even Celine Dion (“The Power of the Dream,” 1996), Color Me Badd (“From the Back,” 1996), Shaggy (“Showtime,” 2002), and recently crowned pop princess Ariana Grande (“Baby I,” 2013). But after I’d finished moving all of my stuff into that basement (my second of three moves in a span of less than eight months — I don’t recommend it), I got a new full-time job, my first in almost five years, and suddenly a new learning curve and source of stress had presented themselves.
Fall came and went.
Then, in February, Babyface released his first new album of original material in nine years, Love, Marriage & Divorce, a collaboration with onetime protégée Toni Braxton. (He’s credited as the sole producer of all but one track, while the songwriting is mostly handled by various combinations of the two singers and longtime Babyface colleagues Antonio Dixon and Daryl Simmons.) I figured I’d make it the focus of the final ‘Face Time post later that month.
Then winter came and went.
Spring too — but, in my defense, it only lasts a couple weeks here in Chicago — and I hadn’t even bought the CD yet. Finally, in mid-June I read a review of Love, Marriage & Divorce by Kevin Krein on his blog, Anhedonic Headphones, that convinced me to head to Target on the way home from work one night, credit-card hackers be damned (though with a name like that you have to admit you were kind of asking for it, Target), and purchase a copy. Krein was absolutely right: “The record as a whole is smooth, it’s fun, it’s funky and soulful, and it’s well thought out.”
It’s also funny. As Krein mentions in his review, Babyface’s one non-duet track on the album, the lilting, melancholy “I Hope That You’re Okay,” in which the protagonist attempts to have a mature outlook on the end of his relationship (“And I hope that we are good / You know, that the feeling’s mutual / We can work it out / And go our separate ways”) in a fashion reminiscent of ’70s R&B songs such as the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” is sequenced directly ahead of Braxton’s self-penned, nakedly honest “I Wish,” one of her two solo numbers: “I hope you’re unhappy / And I hope, I hope, I hope / She gives you a disease / So that you will see / But not enough to make you die / But only make you cry / Like you did to me.”
In other words, “You hope that I’m ‘okay’? Fuck you.“
The death of a marriage is easy, but comedy is hard, especially the kind that can make you laugh as you’re crying.
Love, Marriage & Divorce is “grown folks’ music” at its finest, partly because Babyface and Braxton — who are 55 and 46, respectively, and whose vocals have lost none of their sensuality over time — acknowledge that adults don’t always act grown when emotions are running high. As indicated by its opening track, “Roller Coaster” (“We ain’t going nowhere, darling / Just hold on for the ride”), the album runs the gamut of those emotions, from guilt (“Hurt You”), disgust (“I’d Rather Be Broke,” Braxton’s second solo track and a playful reference to her two real-life bankruptcy filings), and regret (“Where Did We Go Wrong?”) to lust (“Sweat,” which is either about the joy of makeup sex or the surprising satisfaction of angry sex) and longing (“The D Word,” the album’s closing number, though the Target-exclusive edition contains two bonus tracks, and possibly its most haunting: “Although we’re apart / You still own my heart / Forever and ever and ever”).
Love, Marriage & Divorce is unquestionably a major highlight of Babyface’s career as a singer, songwriter, and producer, but Braxton, who deserves equal praise, seems to have provided the spark he needed to create his best album since “A Love Story” a decade earlier.
If you’ve never heard of “A Love Story,” that’s because Arista shelved it in 2004, allegedly because the planned first single, “The Loneliness,” didn’t make much of an impression on urban radio. That song, along with remixed updates of two others (“God Must Love U,” “The Gettin’ to Know U”), surfaced a year later on Grown & Sexy, which isn’t an embarrassment by any means — Babyface’s gift for melody and songcraft rarely lets him down — but it does remind me of something Chris Rock said in his 1996 HBO stand-up special, Bring the Pain: “You know why you gotta settle down eventually? ‘Cause you don’t wanna be the old guy in the club. You know what I’m talking about: Any club you go into, there’s always one old guy. He ain’t really old — just a little too old to be in the club. You don’t wanna be that brother.”
Sex sells, not love — or “A Love Story,” for that matter, since Arista never gave it a chance — so Babyface tries a little too hard to prove he’s learned more from Prince than how to shorten “you” to one letter. “Excuse me if I kiss it for a little / Girl, I like it when it’s nice and wet,” he sings on the opening track, “Tonight It’s Goin’ Down,” while on “Can’t Stop Now” he pleads, “When I kiss it a thousand times / All up and down your thighs and all around it / Take off your clothes and come to me / I want to make your body feel like ecstasy.” (Never mind that when promoting “A Love Story” in March 2004 ‘Face told MTV, “It would be nice to see us get back to being in love and being intimate as opposed to just having sex.”)
On other tracks it sounds like ‘Face scribbled down lyrics while doing his grocery shopping, e.g., “Baby, you got so much flavor / Sometimes I wanna call you Juicy Fruit” (“Mad, Sexy, Cool”) and “Even though we argued last Monday / We made up again by late Thursday / Making love as sweet as red Kool-Aid” (“Good to Be in Love,” one of the album’s highlights).
Does any of that qualify as sexy? It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but coming from Babyface, it’s a bit like watching your favorite uncle get drunk at the family reunion and sing Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” during Cousins Karaoke. As ‘Face himself told the Los Angeles Times‘s Mikael Wood in February, “Labels are into selling as many records as they can, and for the most part they tend to go younger.” And if you’re not young anymore, then at least pretend like you are, dammit.
Luckily, Motown/Universal didn’t give ‘Face and Braxton that mandate on Love, Marriage & Divorce, but the fact that the album’s general soundscape means it could be mistaken as having been produced in 1994, when both Braxton and Babyface were easily selling millions of records, probably hasn’t hurt sales among nostalgic 30- and 40somethings.
The same can’t be said for “A Love Story,” in which ‘Face flirts with jazz — the gorgeous lead-off track, “God Must Love U,” starts out like Norah Jones’s 2002 smash “Don’t Know Why” before adding George Benson-ish guitar fills and one of Babyface’s favorite word combos, “witchoo” (as in “I fell in love witchoo”) — not to mention standards — “Wish That I Could Tell You” conspicuously cribs the melody of “Good King Wenceslas,” of all things, before incorporating both the music and words of 1961’s “Moon River” — and even big band — “Together Forever” is essentially a cover of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” (1939) with new lyrics.
I can see why Arista executives were skittish ten years ago — “The urban contemporary stations want another For the Cool in You, not ‘For the Andy Williams in You’!” — and I certainly don’t believe that every shelved LP is a lost masterpiece, but “A Love Story” (which you can download here) succeeds as a collection of songs as well as a concept album, just like Love, Marriage & Divorce, only it tells a linear story: love at first sight (“God Must Love U”) followed by courtship (“The Gettin’ to Know U”) and consummation (“Makin’ Love”), with infidelity (“The Sentimental Reasons”) and its aftermath (“The Loneliness”) providing second-act obstacles prior to redemption and reconciliation (“Together Forever,” “Still My Boo”).
“A Love Story” is obviously more of a stylistic risk than Grown & Sexy, but, artistically speaking, it pays off, so it’s a shame Arista didn’t make the leap. Because, after all, isn’t every love story a leap of faith? The lesson, I suppose, is not worrying so much about where you might land.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface, and if you’re a member of Spotify, check out the ‘Face Time playlist here. Also, don’t forget the spin-off series Flyte Brothers over at Popblerd. Thank you for reading.