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.
Jeff: This was Madonna’s signal that she was safe for suburban homes again after Erotica (1992), and it worked. It was also a pretty brilliant kiss-off anthem for a certain type of mid-’90s woman, as I discovered at the end of at least one relationship.
Sonically, it’s kind of a precursor to Clapton’s “Change the World.” ‘Face’s presence is there if you look for it, but it’s pretty subtle.
Mike: You think so? I almost feel like “Take a Bow” is a Babyface song featuring Madonna, as opposed to the other way around. As beautiful as the song is — and it’s one of ‘Face’s best — it has less of her personality than any hit single she had during this period.
Jeff: I’m not saying Madonna exerts a lot of force on the song either. I’m just saying that in comparison to ‘Face’s earlier work, which bore heavy hallmarks of his style and sound no matter who he happened to be working for, “Take a Bow” doesn’t necessarily hit you as one of his songs. Once you hear his voice it’s obvious that he had a hand in it, but it isn’t like, say, After 7’s “Can’t Stop,” where he might as well have just recorded it himself.
Mike: Man, I disagree with you strongly here. [laughs] This song sounds about 95 percent ‘Face, 5 percent Madonna.
Jeff: I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.
Robert: Oh, you men …
Mike: Of course you can! You knew this was a Babyface song within six seconds. You didn’t know it was a Madonna song until she opened her mouth.
And there are plenty of Madge songs you could recognize as Madge songs before hearing her voice: “Open Your Heart,” “Causing a Commotion,” “Express Yourself.” ‘Face kind of imposed his musical personality on her, and it worked. The other song they did together — “Forbidden Love”? Not so much.
Jeff: I’m telling you, I didn’t know this was a Babyface song for quite a while, probably years. That has a lot to do with the way I consume Madonna’s music — passively, from a comfortable distance — but still …
Mike: That’s so odd to me. I can’t remember the first time I heard the song. I actually think I got a promo of Bedtime Stories the day it came out, but I knew from the first few notes that it was ‘Face’s handiwork.
Robert: I have a question. When did “feat.” become ubiquitous, as in “Madonna feat. Babyface,” which is how “Take a Bow” might be credited on iTunes if it came out today. Did Babyface not demand a performing credit on songs like “Take a Bow” and “Change the World” because he’s not an egomaniac and knew his voice was never the focus on those songs — he didn’t even take a credit on Pebbles’s “Love Makes Things Happen” even though it’s obviously a duet and he gets as much screen time as Pebbles in the video, but maybe that’s because he was already getting paid for cowriting and coproducing the song — or did the Guest Performer Union just not have enough pull in the music industry 20 years ago?
A year or so after “Take a Bow” Puff Daddy was suddenly everywhere, elbowing his way into songs and videos he’d produced to such a shameless degree that Chris Rock made light of it in ’97 on his parody song “Champagne” [from the album Roll With the New, which also featured a parody of Babyface’s sound, and yes, we’ll be covering that track at some point just for the hell of it]. Suddenly “feat.” seemed to be everywhere on the back covers of hip-hop CDs — or did that phenomenon start earlier than I think? Can a graduate student please raise his/her hand and take on this research assignment for us? Jeff is willing to pay you with bad Christmas albums.
Jeff: Pebbles should’ve been taking screen time from other artists in their videos.
Mike: I almost got backhanded by a relative because I dared proclaim that Janet Jackson was better-looking than Pebbles.
Jeff: Ha! That’s the traffic-whoring feature we should be doing: Hottest Female ’80s R&B Singers.
Robert: Finally, we’re talking about something of substance! Maybe if you’d grown up having never seen an episode of Good Times you’d find Janet more attractive, but she’ll always be Penny to me.
In the fall of ’91 Karyn White and I had a thing; she just didn’t know it. We’ll get to her big Babyface-produced hit, “Superwoman,” at some point in this series. Also, let’s not forget Cherrelle, Pebbles’s cousin, who had an odd habit of cooing “Let’s sing it together” on both “Saturday Love,” a duet with Alexander O’Neal, and Pebbles’s “Always,” for which neither Cherrelle nor Johnny Gill received credit for their backing vocals. Damn those union busters!
Mike: She also did it on her other duet with Alexander O’ Neal, “Never Knew Love Like This.”
Now, Karyn White, she fine. She still fine.
Robert: Cherrelle does it on that song too? I was about to check, but I thought, She couldn’t possibly say that line in all three songs. I stand corrected. Too bad she didn’t do an update of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” with Robert Palmer before he died so she could say it in that song too.
Mike: Let’s not give anyone any ideas. She might just decide to go the “Unforgettable” route and patch her voice into Palmer’s recording, or do what Mariah did and lay her own vocal over the original recording.
Robert: Did Mariah cover “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” for the Glitter soundtrack?
Mike: Yep. Exact same backing track as Cherrelle’s. Basically, Mariah doing karaoke.
Robert: If only Gus Van Sant could take what he learned from his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho and apply it to a shot-by-shot remake of Glitter — which, strangely enough, would also feature Vince Vaughn in the lead role, but just go with it.
I wonder how much work Babyface and L.A. Reid lost to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and vice versa, in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Mike: Jam & Lewis turned out to have the longer shelf life. They arguably made the better records too — ‘Face was just more successful.
Robert: They had the longer shelf life? I know they continued to produce songs for Janet Privacy Control up through 2006, but, to paraphrase Miss Jackson (’cause I’m nasty), what have they done for listeners lately?
Jeff: We can get into Jam & Lewis in the next series. For now let’s just agree that A) Babyface performs on “Take a Bow,” and B) Pebbles was hot.
Mike: I can sign off on both of those.
Robert: No no no, it’s important that we drift here so I can eventually have an excuse for shoving my religious views down your throats.
Jeff: GODDAMN YOU, CASS, STOP TALKING ABOUT JAM & LEWIS.
Robert: Okay, fine. Babyface sings on this Madonna song, and Pebbles was a looker.
I didn’t actually listen to “Take a Bow” before commenting on it, which is probably why I went off on so many tangents. I don’t remember hearing it much when it was out, but I know I saw the video in ’95 … which I don’t really remember either except for Madonna being in her underwear. It’s a pretty song, and it does sound like a ‘Face production, but I wouldn’t have thought that at the time. The part in the chorus where she sings, “Say goodbye,” however, reminds me a little of Pebbles’s “Always” now that I’m hearing it again.
Mike: Madonna’s in her underwear in every video! But this one had BULLFIGHTING!!
Robert: From the bottom of my teenage heart, thank you, Madonna.
Jeff: You know what the song kind of reminds me of? “Live to Tell.” Not because of the production or lyrical subject matter, but because it’s slow and she’s singing in a lower register.
Like I said, I’m not much of a Madonna fan.
Robert: The “Take a Bow” video is The Sun Also Rises meets a Victoria’s Secret commercial meets Madonna’s informal audition for Evita (1996). Actually, the last part’s true, according to Wikipedia.
Mike: Also worth noting: at seven weeks, this is the longest-running number one of Madonna’s career. It was also her last single to crack the top 40 on the R&B chart.
Jeff: Fascinating factoids!
Mike: We’re full of it— er, them.
Jeff: Loving this series so far! What’s next?
Robert: YOU ASSHOLES AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL MIKE TELLS ME WHY JAM & LEWIS HAD MORE LONGEVITY AS HIT MAKERS THAN ‘FACE!
But yes, next week we can move on — or back, as it were — to the Whispers’ summer ’87 hit, “Rock Steady.”
Mike: Last good stuff Jam & Lewis put out was maybe ’04-’05. They did a couple of pretty good things on Usher’s Confessions album.
Man, I love “Rock Steady.” No one gives the Whispers any props; they had a solid decade and change of hits. And they had twins!
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.