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 song is mostly an excuse for a pleasantly Hype Williams-ish video. Tisha Campbell! Vivica A. Fox! So very ’90s.
Robert: Don’t forget Erika Alexander from The Cosby Show and Living Single. The video for “You’re Makin Me High” must have started airing on MTV and BET right before Independence Day was released, which temporarily made Fox an up-and-coming movie star. (Michael J. Fox’s real name is Michael A. Fox. Is Vivica his sister? Discuss.) And 1996 was the year Tisha Campbell filed a lawsuit against costar Martin Lawrence and the producers of their Vivica A.-less Fox sitcom, Martin, for sexual harassment, accusing the comedian of verbal and physical intimidation. Actually, that was just a few months after Lawrence was arrested for screaming at cars on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, California. But we can’t say he didn’t warn us, having named his 1994 stand-up concert movie You So Crazy.
By the way, that’s Bryce Wilson, who wrote and produced “You’re Makin Me High” with Babyface, treating Braxton to a bathtub full of fiberglass insulation in the video.
Mike: The song still holds up, and Wilson’s bass-heavy production is a big reason why, although those Dr. Dre high-end synths haven’t aged well, have they?
Robert: Maybe that’s why Dre’s Detox still hasn’t been released more than a decade after he started working on it — he’s waiting for his signature sound to be in style again. Hurry up already, ’90s nostalgia …
Jeff: I’d never listened to this song before now. Jesus, 30 seconds in and I think I already had a contact high from those synths. Sweet background-vocal work from Mr. Edmonds, though.
Robert: I’m not sure if I heard “You’re Makin Me High” when it was first out — I didn’t have a TV in the summer of ’96, so I definitely didn’t see the video — but I like its general after-hours vibe.
Jeff: I don’t hate it, but it’s kind of frustrating. This is what Babyface sounds like when he’s stuck in second gear; even that bridge doesn’t really go anywhere, although it sounds like it might want to.
Robert: You have to remember that in the ’90s LaFace Records was based in Atlanta, where thousands of black college students would travel every spring for Freaknik, and that the main activity of Freaknik involved those students sitting in their cars and creating traffic jams, forcing everyone to be stuck in second gear and go nowhere. Babyface, you’re a genius!
Mike: Jeff, you’d never heard “You’re Makin Me High” prior to this conversation? Where the hell were you in ’96? This was a number one hit!
Jeff: I was aware of its existence; I remember seeing the cover of that CD single everydamnwhere. But having never heard a Toni Braxton song I cared for up to that point, I avoided listening to it — pretty successfully, as it turns out.
Mike: I can’t decide if that’s admirable or horrifying.
Jeff: I heard “Un-Break My Heart” and “Breathe Again” enough for three songs.
Robert: Does “You’re Makin Me High” contain the most Prince-like lyrics of any ‘Face-penned song? Maybe he felt comfortable writing lines like “I can imagine you / Touching my private parts” because he knew he wouldn’t be singing them. Or maybe the guy with the insulated tub is responsible.
Mike: Oh man, you have to hear “Can’t Get Enough” by El DeBarge, where he sings something like “Ooh, baby, I didn’t think I could get so hard,” or something to that effect. ‘Face (with assistance from cowriter Jon-John Robinson) could get a little freaky.
Robert: Sigh … they grow up so fast.
Mike: Actually, “Can’t Get Enough” came out before “You’re Makin Me High.”
Robert: It’s too bad that wasn’t a bigger hit for El. When he says “hard” it almost sounds like “hot,” though. Nice end run around the radio censors, ‘Face.
Jeff: See, that sounds like a Babyface song. Somewhere in a parallel universe ‘Face and El are partners in an After 7-style group.
Mike: A Babyface-and-El collaboration album would’ve dropped so many panties you’d feel the Earth vibrating even today.
Robert: In that parallel universe is their supergroup produced by these superheroes? (Readers, this is an inside joke, so forgive me, but don’t you agree that the cover of Full Force Get Busy 1 Time! could’ve easily doubled as the front of a birthday card for a six-year-old boy in 1987? I can’t be the only one. What a spectacular team of crime-fighters they would’ve made!)
As for Braxton’s ballads, “You Mean the World to Me” is the keeper, in my opinion.
Jeff: I’m going to assume that isn’t a Huey Lewis cover.
Robert: Wait a minute, am I now on the outside of another inside joke? I’m talking about this song.
Jeff: I was talking about this one.
Robert: I looked it up as soon as you mentioned Lewis’s name, but I don’t recognize “World to Me” at all. Now I see it’s a track from Small World … along with “Perfect World” and the title track, which was divided into two separate tracks. What in the world, Huey?
Jeff, you’re just trying to get Matt Wardlaw to read this post, aren’t you? Shameless.
Jeff: Let’s not bring Billy Joel and Garth Brooks into this discussion. Stick to the subject at hand, Cass: FULL FORCE GREETING CARDS.
Robert: I just opened the Kickstarter account. Who wants to pledge $100,000? Anyone, anyone? What if we throw in a dinner with Full Force member Bowlegged Lou, who played the bully Pee-wee in House Party? Or what if we just let him bully you? What if we also throw in a sexual harassment-filled slow dance with Martin Lawrence, who played Bilal in the movie?
Mike: “Breathe Again” > “You Mean the World to Me” > dying cats meowing > “Un-Break My Heart”
Robert: Mike, you should have a Twitter feed devoted solely to these inequations.
Mike: Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.