Don’t call it a comeback. No, seriously, don’t.
It may be true that Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds has experienced a dramatic upswing in productivity over the past year or so, after nearly a decade of relative, atypical quiet. His production and songwriting work for Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande saw the 20-year-old notch her first No. 1 album, “Yours Truly,” last month. He’s knee-deep readying a duets record with longtime muse Toni Braxton, titled “Love, Marriage, Divorce,” for a December release on Motown. And his producer dance card is filled up with projects for Keri Hilson, Ledisi and Barbra Streisand in the months to come.
Yet Edmonds was never expelled from the ranks of superstar hitmakers so much as he decided to opt out for a while. And unlike so many music industry titans of his level, who cast the ups and downs of their careers as a sort of grand hero’s journey, Edmonds is just about the least likely person on earth to take stock of his personal narrative through a “Behind the Music”-style lens.
“I’ve always been mostly behind the scenes,” Edmonds says, reflecting on his varied career trajectory. “I never was that star. I was never the Bobby Brown or the Johnny Gill, the Boyz II Men. I had records and I did well, but I was never that big. It was me producing people that had the biggest impact, and being a writer and producer is just as important to my artistry as being Babyface the solo artist. … If I hadn’t become a producer, I don’t know that I would still be relevant.”
Unfailingly polite, humble, and at times almost inaudibly soft-spoken, the 54-year-old Edmonds casts such an unassuming figure in conversation that it’s difficult to remember that this is the same man who once rearranged the 1990s R&B charts, and the pop charts in general, in his own image. (He confesses it took years of persuasion before he finally agreed to accept a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) Even when interviewed from inside the home theater of his palatial Bel-Air home — a basement hideaway replete with overstuffed leather chairs and a massage table in the center of the room — the setting manages to be impossibly luxurious and impeccably arranged without ever feeling ostentatious or fussed-over, much like Edmonds’ collected oeuvre.
“It’s very unusual to have a non-Type A personality and experience that kind of success in this business,” says songwriter-producer David Foster, a longtime friend and occasional collaborator. “And Kenny has a Type Z personality. He’s obviously driven like a madman, but you just never see it when you’re with him. It’s extremely unusual for a person that laid back and that kind to make it like this.”
A key figure in R&B’s New Jack Swing era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Edmonds graduated to even higher plateaus as the ’90s progressed, becoming something like the patron saint of the slow-jam. His songwriting and production for Whitney Houston, Braxton, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Eric Clapton, Paula Abdul, Beyonce and Celine Dion saw him notch hit after hit, and when taken in concert with his film work — he helped soundtrack “The Bodyguard,” soundtracked and scored “Waiting to Exhale,” and soundtracked and produced “Soul Food,” all of which were enormous smashes at the box office and in record stores — Edmonds had created a lane all his own by the middle of the decade. Absorbing a number of hip-hop’s sonic innovations without mirroring its attitude, and attracting an enormous adult contemporary audience while still providing makeout music for millions of middle-schoolers the world over, the Babyface brand helped to create a truly distinctive strain of aspirational black middle-class entertainment.
In the span of roughly a decade, Edmonds wrote and produced 51 Top 10 pop singles and 26 R&B chart-toppers. He won 10 Grammys, including an unprecedented three straight producer of the year honors from 1996-98 (only Foster and Quincy Jones can equal his total haul in the category). And this is all without even mentioning his career as a solo artist — under the Babyface name, he secured multiplatinum certification for three of his own records.
It perhaps goes without saying that streaks this hot are bound to cool off eventually, and Edmonds’ output slowed down conspicuously around the dawn of the new millennium. Though as he tells it, it was largely by choice.
“I think it was about 10 years ago that I felt a change in the kind of music that was popular,” Edmonds says. “And I didn’t really want to be writing songs and trying to place songs in a market that had evolved into something that I didn’t think was as musical as it had been. I didn’t want to get down to writing one-note songs. I just wasn’t inspired by what was happening.
“So I just kind of backed up a little bit and did other things. But for me at this point, melody is returning, and I feel I can be more creative. I think it’s an exciting time for pop music. It’s not as cookie-cutter as it had gotten. Some things still are, and they’ll probably always be, but at this point I think for a writer like myself, there’s more space for me to work and not feel like I’m selling out or trying to chase a trend.”
Though he says he wrote his first song in the sixth grade, and logged his first studio time in the 10th, Edmonds never set out to be a superstar songwriter or a producer. “I didn’t really know that was a career option,” he says.
After stints as a teenager playing keyboards and guitar for Manchild and Bootsy Collins (who gave him his Babyface moniker), the Indianapolis native joined quiet storm R&B band the Deele in the early 1980s with Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Yet his trajectory changed when he allowed his manager to shop one of his compositions, the auspiciously titled “Slow-Jam,” to Midnight Star, which turned it into a minor hit. This led to further songwriting gigs, which grew ever more high-profile until he notched his first R&B No. 1 in 1987, with the Whispers’ “Rock Steady.”
“I remember when I got my first royalty check for ‘Slow-Jam,’ ” he says. “It was something like $5,000, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. I can actually make money doing this.’ Making money from music wasn’t something that had really been in the cards before that.”
Quitting the Deele in 1988, Edmonds and Reid decided to make a stand as a full-service hitmaker duo, and found inspiration in another pair of Midwestern R&B group sidemen-turned-producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
“We weren’t just big fans of Jimmy and Terry … we wanted to be them,” Edmonds says. “We became ‘L.A. and Babyface’ because they were ‘Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.’ We even felt like we needed to have a name like theirs.”
Yet the twosome managed to one-up their idols by also founding their own record label, LaFace, which nursed the early careers of Braxton, TLC, OutKast, Pink and Usher to multiplatinum heights. And from then on out, Edmonds took up nearly uninterrupted residence in the uppermost reaches of the pop charts.
If all that sounds like a suspiciously offhand rise to the top, Edmonds’ studio approach is anything but.
Boyz II Men founding member Nathan Morris recalls the group’s first meeting with Edmonds in 1992, when the producer flew out to Philadelphia to catch the foursome in the middle of a tour. Spending a mere four hours in the studio, Edmonds efficiently directed them through a song he’d written, titled “End of the Road,” and the group headed right back out on tour the next day. Within months, they were left watching with disbelief as the song rose to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart and stayed there for an astounding 13 weeks, beating a record set by Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel.” (Their Babyface-produced follow-up, 1994’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” registered 14 consecutive weeks on top.)
“Early on, I wouldn’t say he was authoritarian, but he was very straightforward,” Morris says. “What ’Face brings to the equation is the fact that he is also a singing artist, whereas most studio guys are more instrumental musicians. So ’Face knows how he wants the vocal inflections to be, he knows exactly what word he wants emotions to peak on. It’s really a more intricate working process.”
Yet like most serious songwriters, Edmonds’ is loath to discuss his craft in self-important terms, casting it as a mere daily routine. “I write songs every day. That’s just what my days consist of,” he says with a shrug.
As Foster puts it, “He could compose a symphony if that’s what he was trying to do. But when you’re writing a song, you want to make it something that the whole world can sing, and that’s what he does. He makes it sound simple from a fan’s point of view. And he makes it look simple from a fellow composer and producer’s point of view. But when you really drill down, you see the complexity of the arc that he creates with his songs.”
“Simplicity can work if that’s your thing,” Edmonds says. “It’s not necessarily about riffs, it’s about feeling. Nailing emotions can be more complicated than nailing riffs. Believing somebody when they sing, that they actually mean it, that’s a tough thing to do.
“People call me when they want emotion. They don’t call me to get the party started.”
Edmonds isn’t one to dwell on past successes — he’ll usually change the station when an old song of his comes on the radio. “I’m always happy when things work out, and I’m never hurt if it doesn’t. … You’ll never catch me jumping up and down. Because I always like to hope that I have another one in me.”
Yet that’s not to say he doesn’t harbor concerns about the fate of the genre in which he’s made his career. Edmonds has always nursed varied musical tastes; his 2007 covers album, “Playlist,” didn’t feature a single classic soul song, leaning instead toward the likes of James Taylor, Jim Croce and Dan Fogelberg. And when discussing what he sees as the revival of “soul” in contemporary pop, he’s far more apt to cite Adele, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers — and even emo-rockers Fall Out Boy, with whom he collaborated last year — than a straightforward modern R&B artist.
“The love aspect of R&B music is certainly not there like it used to be,” Edmonds says. “Slow-dancing is almost a lost art. You’re not gonna go out today and see kids slow-dancing. Maybe slow-grinding.”
Morris concurs. “There aren’t many balladeers today, and so many people put a slow love song on a record just to say they have one,” he says. “Unfortunately we live in a society where patience is thin. And love is one of those things that take patience and time. If you don’t take patience and time to fall in love, you don’t wanna hear anything about love, you just want to hear a quick song and then move on to the next one. And I think music is becoming a reflection of that.”
Yet Edmonds has never been the type to sweat the ebbs and flows of the business, and it seems unlikely he’ll start anytime soon. With the continued respect of his contemporaries, a long line of potential collaborators and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of songs — he’s already planning another solo record — the end of the road for Babyface would seem to be nowhere in sight.
“You couldn’t even remotely say our careers are parallel,” Foster enthuses. “He’s much more of an artist than I am. And he’s a much better singer. And he’s never far from the Top 40, whereas I kind of left that game a dozen years ago. And he’s an incredibly underestimated solo artist. When we were on tour together last year, he just ripped the audience into a frenzy every single night …”
Foster trails off here for a moment, then adds: “So fuck him, basically.”