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.
Robert: Who’s that steppin’ on Jimmy Jam’s turf?
Who’s that sizin’ up Janet’s worth?
Who’s that eatin’ that nasty food?
MATT WARDLAW! (Well, it’s true. And “Jeff Giles” has only two syllables, so …)
Who’s discussin’ the pros and cons of yet another Jackson family member’s groove?
‘FACE TIME BOYS!
Mike: Huh? I fell asleep. So did ‘Face when he was writing it, apparently.
Jeff: No kidding, Mike. This is barely a song! How the hell did it take three people to kinda sorta write it? ‘Face should be ashamed of himself. And Janet … oof. I remember when I thought All for You (2001) was kind of a weak record. She sure showed me.
Robert: “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex” is the first published songwriting credit that Babyface’s cowriters, Andy Cramer and Tanya White, received, from what I can tell, so I’m assuming he added to what they’d already written — or subtracted, depending on how you feel about the song — when he decided to produce it.
Mike: I must admit to liking Damita Jo better than All for You. The problem with many of Janet’s later albums is that they’re long as fuck. No one wants to sit through 20 tracks for 7 or 8 good songs.
Jeff: Twenty tracks, and it always seems like half of them are skits.
Robert: But aren’t those tracks mostly just Janet moaning and cooing or reciting some of her poetry for 30 seconds at a time? Some actual comedy skits might’ve been more entertaining, or at least surprising. I’d like to see/hear a reunion of all non-dead Good Times cast members on her next album’s set of “inter(course)ludes.”
Mike: I don’t think I’ve listened to a skit on a Janet album — or anyone’s, really — in 15 years.
Jeff: I kinda think she broke her career with The Velvet Rope (1997). Once she delved that deeply into her sexuality, she really had nowhere else to go — and unlike Madonna after Erotica (1992), she didn’t have a history of changing her sound to fall back on, so everything since ’97 has either been Rope redux or a sad attempt to recapture past pop glories. It seems like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say or sound like anymore, so she’s reduced to imitating Rihanna and acting in Tyler Perry movies. In the ’80s I never would have guessed she’d fall so far.
Mike: Honestly, if I was to compare Janet’s music, post-’93, to Madonna’s music, post-’93, I’d say Janet wins by a landslide. But yes, she definitely overdid the skits.
Jeff: It’s more like post-Erotica compared to post-Velvet Rope, and I’m not arguing for a winner either way — just saying that once both artists were finished breaking taboos, one of them had more to fall back on in terms of … sonic history, I suppose. Put another way, Janet’s most successful work was all more or less dependent on one sound. It was a sound that evolved while she enjoyed flagship-artist status, and she evolved along with it, but only to a point. And now that sound is old, and Janet’s stuck between self-consciously reaching back to the past (2006’s 20 Y.O.) and self-consciously imitating her successors (2008’s Discipline).
She’s far from alone in that respect — hell, look at Mariah. But at her peak Janet looked positively unstoppable, and in retrospect I think it’s kind of surprising how quickly she fell off.
Robert: Age is always going to be a problem if your “look” and your sexuality are a big part of your popular appeal. Some would argue that plastic surgery, which Madonna appears to have had, can help, but all of those people live on the same planet as Jermaine Jackson. It’s unfair that aging affects the careers of female performers more than male ones, but one could also argue that Elvis’s career was never the same after he decided to let his fat flag fly.
Mike: NO ONE LIVES ON THE SAME PLANET AS JERMAINE JACKSON.
Robert: And by changing the spelling of his last name to “Jacksun” earlier this year, he can now answer the rhetorical question “Do you think the whole world revolves around you?” with an emphatic “Hell yes!”
Mike: I think 20 Y.O. was a throwback in name only. After all, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis only produced two songs on it — which sounded fairly contemporary at the time — and the rest was sorta Janet’s attempt to remake The Emancipation of Mimi. Worst album she ever put out.
But I wonder if we’d be saying the same things about her career had that booby incident not killed it.
Jeff: I wonder too. I’d forgotten about the boob thing until you mentioned it just now.
Robert: Last year I rewatched Chris Rock’s Never Scared special, which was taped a few months after Janet’s Super Bowl mishap. “Janet done lost her damn mind, whipping out a titty on a Sunday afternoon!” he said, and made it clear that “40-year-old titty” is “your man’s titty,” whereas “20-year-old titty” is “community titty.”
Mike: If it wasn’t for Boobgate, it could be argued that Janet and Madonna would still be enjoying the same level of success. If we compare sales of the last two albums from each, 20 Y.O. sold 660,000 copies and Discipline sold 454,000, while Madonna’s Hard Candy (2008) sold 747,000 copies and the follow-up, MDNA (2012), sold 532,000.
Jeff: And there’s a solid EP to be created from all four of them put together.
Mike: Disagree in relatively strong fashion.
Jeff: Well, make me a playlist then! Or are you saying you couldn’t even make an EP out of those albums? In that case I could be persuaded without music.
Mike: I could make an excellent 12- to 13-track album out of All for You, Damita Jo, 20 Y.O., and Discipline (which isn’t available online, unfortunately) and probably still have 2 or 3 songs left over.
Robert: Do you think Janet ever got a consolation phone call from former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner?
“Ms. Jackson, I think it’s just awful how people won’t stop talking about that ‘wardrobe malfunction’ of yours, but take it from me — any time you step into a stadium and participate in a sporting event, even as a performer at halftime, you run the risk of YOUR ENTIRE FUCKING CAREER being defined by a SIMPLE FUCKING MISTAKE that ANYONE COULD HAVE FUCKING MADE.”
I bet Janet then reminded Buckner that it was Justin Timberlake, not Janet herself, who caused the malfunction to happen (“White men can get away with anything,” she probably grumbled). I bet she also chided Buckner for his salty language. And I hope he replied, “Well, I did call you ‘Ms. Jackson,’ so I thought it was obvious I was going to be nasty.” (Yes, I’m now pretending as if this phone call actually took place. I’m convinced I’ve got the makings of a gripping one-act play here.)
It’s weird to think that I’m now as old as Janet was when “the boob incident” occurred almost ten years ago. Will one of you please remind me to keep my nipples covered the next time I go to a Cubs game? (That’s a trick question. I never leave my apartment.)
Jeff: I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the playlist that Mike made for me, which does offer a solid counterargument to my claim that Janet’s 21st-century output has been one big downhill slide. I will say, though, that even the good stuff is just good — but between, say, ’86 and ’93, she seemed like she might have been capable of some truly Next-Level Shit, so “good” is kind of a painful comedown. For me, anyway.
Mike: I hear ya. And by and large, I agree.
Robert: If you just count his solo albums, I think Michael had a shorter streak of high-quality hits than Janet. She was unshakable from “What Have You Done for Me Lately” in ’86 all the way through to “Together Again” more than a decade later. If you ask me, Michael’s hit streak stopped with “Bad” eight years after it started with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” (In other words, I’d gotten enough by 1987.)
Mike: I’d stretch Michael’s high-quality hit streak into the mid-’90s. I’d say it stopped with his duet with Janet, “Scream.”
Robert: What? You mean you don’t include the 1996 Babyface-penned single “Why,” performed by Michael’s nephews and produced by MJ himself (with an obligatory vocal and visual assist, of course)?
The Jacksons have never been afraid of makeup, have they? And all this time I thought Kiss was the only major act buying the stuff in bulk.
Mike: Ugh. That’s about all I can say.