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.
“I’m Like a Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)” by Fall Out Boy [Amazon / iTunes] (written by Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz; produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds; from Infinity on High, 2007)
Robert: Mike’s on a brief leave of absence from ‘Face Time, which must be why Jeff and I have both been staring longingly into the distance while listening to Babyface’s biggest Top 40 hit. In the meantime Fall Out Boy has decided to answer the title of that 1993 ballad by returning this week with Save Rock and Roll, its fifth studio album but also its first since announcing a hiatus (a falling-out?) in late 2009. Four years earlier the Chicago pop-punk band asked Babyface to produce its third LP because of the work he’d done for another famous pop-punk band, albeit a fake one: “He did the soundtrack to ‘Josie and the Pussycats,’ and it’s amazing,” bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz told MTV News. “We haven’t confirmed him, but we’re looking to tap him for the job, and we will be demoing a couple of songs with him for sure.”
I don’t know if those two songs were “Thnks fr th Mmrs” and this week’s ‘Face Time selection, “I’m Like a Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You),” but they’re the ones that ended up on 2007’s Infinity on High — the majority of the album was overseen by Neal Avron, who’d produced Fall Out Boy’s previous disc, From Under the Cork Tree (2005). ‘Face also played mandolin on “Thnks” and Hammond B3 organ on “I’m Like a Lawyer,” both of which were released as singles.
Jeff: I like the idea of Babyface playing mandolin. Now I really want him to cut a bluegrass record with Steve Martin.
Robert: Keep reaching for the stars, Jeff! Can Ed Helms’s banjo engage in a duel with Martin’s while ‘Face and Bruce Hornsby have a duel of their own on mandolin? How about a bluegrass cover of Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Make Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd proud, guys.
Jeff: No, I don’t want Hornsby on mandolin. He can play hammer dulcimer. Ever since he teased the possibility of a hammer-dulcimer record during his Matt ‘n’ Jeff Radio Hour appearance, I’ve been semi-obsessed with hearing it.
Robert: Fine. But I have to tell you, wherever I go people ask, “When do you think Babyface and Bruce Hornsby will record a cover of ‘Marquee Moon’ that features interlocking mandolins?” And by “people” I mean myself, because I never leave my apartment, but that still counts for something.
Eight months before Infinity on High was released, Pete Wentz talked to MTV News again and highlighted one particular track on the new album. “There’s a song we’re calling ‘Me & You,’ and in it Patrick is doing things that are straight-up Motown,” he said. “If there wasn’t a rock band playing it’d be straight R&B, and he’d go on tour with just an upright bass and a drum and open up for R. Kelly.”
Hmm … I’m not feeling the R&B vibe, but maybe it was more apparent on the demo, and besides, my first exposure to “I’m Like a Lawyer … (Me & You)” was its music video, which distracted me from the song itself because, well, what the hell’s going on here?
I think it’s great that Fall Out Boy reportedly donated the video’s original budget to Ugandan villages whose children were being drafted into the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army. But when you change the name of your song from “Me & You” to “I’m Like a Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off” and stick the original title in parentheses at the end of the new one, people like me — and maybe you — are going to be listening for that title in the lyrics, only to be disappointed when it never comes (pardon the pun). Did the Ugandans we see in the video know the song’s title when they agreed to be on camera? On that note, did Babyface know when he was in the studio with Fall Out Boy or did he discover the official title only after Infinity on High was released? I like the “punk” impulse to give a song a jokey name, but when you juxtapose said song with footage of third-world African children fearing for their lives, you risk looking like you’re making fun of them, which, if true, would make you a dick, not a punk.
That being said, I’m still looking forward to Fall Out Boy’s upcoming charity single, a cover of Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” All proceeds will benefit the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools system, and as Pete Wentz told MTV News, “The video will show us superimposed over the Auschwitz scenes in ‘Schindler’s List.’ Should be pretty rad.”
Jeff: This is the first time I’ve listened to “I’m Like a Lawyer” or any other Fall Out Boy song, and you’re right, the video is all kinds of strange. I mean, I guess it’s an admirable attempt at using music to deliver a message, but the two halves don’t fit. It makes me pine for the days of self-serious Amnesty International rock, and those are words I never thought I’d write.
Not a bad song, though. I like that big-ass chorus — and in the context of this series I really like the way it highlights the diversity of Babyface’s talents as a producer.
Robert: It’s a first for me as well, but I disagree with Corey Apar, who wrote in his AllMusic.com review of Infinity on High that “I’m Like a Lawyer” is “Maroon 5-ish.” Both bands have taken their lumps for being overexposed, partly because they’ve seemed like willing participants in their overexposure, but I haven’t heard anything by Maroon 5 that’s struck me as “pop-punk.” Songs like “Makes Me Wonder” and “This Love,” unlike “I’m a Lawyer,” legitimately sound like they were built on an R&B foundation.
I agree with you on your second point, though — I don’t think anyone could hear this track for the first time and say, “Of course Babyface produced it. I mean, duh.” (Well, maybe the commenter who called you “that Jeff guy” in January, but he obviously has a sixth sense.) I’m glad he’s gotten some extra mileage out of the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack.
As for the chorus of “I’m Like a Lawyer,” once I read Apar’s observation that it’s reminiscent of Phil Collins’s “A Groovy Kind of Love,” I couldn’t stop hearing that song’s melody in my head. I’d also need to listen to “I’m Like a Lawyer” outside the context of its video to fully appreciate it, especially since the song comes to a dead stop in the middle of the video to accommodate the kid lawyer going AWOL from the KISS Army so he can get back to his sweetheart and make sure she gets off. That’s the long and short of the storyline, right? Maybe I missed a key detail or two. Like I said, the whole thing confused me.
Jeff: The lack of stereotypical ‘Face signposts is what I like most about this track, I guess. I can’t see going out of my way to hear it again, but given some of the lazy-sounding duds we’ve listened to as part of our conversations over the last several weeks, it does make me feel better about Babyface’s latter-day work. “I’m Like a Lawyer’s” vibe is kind of fascinating to me — I mean, clearly there’s a sound most of his production clients are looking for, but he’s obviously just as capable of bringing other stuff to the table.
Robert: We’ll be hearing another one of those duds — in my opinion, anyway — next week, and in comparison “I’m Like a Lawyer” is a gem.
Jeff: I wonder if he feels constrained by his own success at this point.
Robert: We’ve talked about that before in terms of whether or not he gets tired of being asked to produce radio-friendly pop-soul ballads. Paul McCartney recorded three electronica albums with Youth, a.k.a. Martin Glover, between ’93 and ’08 under the alias of the Fireman, presumably because a lot of people wouldn’t have given the albums a fair shake if they’d been released under his own name. Maybe ‘Face could do something similar and avoid any preconceived notions of what he’s capable of.
Jeff: I’d love that. This is obviously a series built as much on tangents as it is on sincere appreciation for Babyface’s work, but I think it’s also illustrative of how success can really calcify an artist’s approach, and although I guess it’d be presumptuous to say this in his particular case, it can even damage the artist’s relationship with the muse. I think it’s easy to get caught in a weird feedback loop where you unconsciously start throwing up boundaries in the places where you think your audience wants them.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.