Thanks to an April 20 “Verzuz” battle with Teddy Riley live on Instagram, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is seeing renewed interest in his career as one of the most successful songwriters of the last four decades. And gaining the attention of some half-a-million music lovers has inspired Edmonds not only to make new music but also to look back at his own catalog.
“There were a lot of people asking for stuff from ‘Waiting To Exhale’,” says Edmonds of the soundtrack he wrote and produced to the 1995 movie which has sold over 12 million albums worldwide. “So ultimately I decided that, since it’s Mother’s Day [on May 10], I’m going to go live again and play the whole ‘Waiting To Exhale’ album and tell stories about the experience and the journey through it. I thought that would be a great way to celebrate Mother’s Day. And I’ll premiere the new single, — ‘When I Get to Heaven,’ then, too.” It will be his first release in five years.
Initially Babyface was reticent to the idea of a battle. “It wasn’t something I was dying to do but now that it’s happened I realize that there are people out there that wanna reach out and connect and this is a new way of connecting,” he says. “That’s why I’ll do this IG Live and do some other things in the future as well. … Until we get out on the road again.”
That the Verzuz events have been so steeped in nostalgia isn’t lost on Edmonds, whose credits as Babyface include Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” Madonna’s “Take a Bow” and Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” “Something amazing happened for all of us — we found music again,” he says. “Music that we loved, music that we missed and we didn’t even know we were missing it.”
The most streamed song from both producers the day after the event Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk,” a song rooted in musicality and some of the more complex chords of Babyface’s catalog. However, it was by no means his biggest hit, peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994.
“That song always gets a heavy reaction when I perform in live in my medley,” he says. “It’s something about Tevin, the way he sung it. It’s one of those songs that kind of sticks with you. They’re not always the obvious ones.”
Another song with similar resonance was After 7’s “Ready Or Not” which features his older brother Melvin Edmonds, who died after a short illness in May last year. “Melvin was always a hard worker,” he says solemnly, speaking of the death publicly for the first time. “Very determined. I saw that early on with him of getting through struggles and life in general, so he was a fighter. He never really gave up. He had a lot of things life that came his way and he had to fight through it. Personal tragedies. His second wife passing away from a brain aneurism and he had to struggle through it and stay strong. More than anything what I got from Melvin was that he worked hard, he was never really lazy about it. Part of that whole thinking for myself was to never… always keep going, always keep pushing.”
With a 115% increase in streams of the 49 songs played during the Verzuz event, the day after — three million streams collectively — and a sizable uptick in social media followers, there has been a new focus on the music that Babyface and his former business and production partner, Antonio L.A.
Reid (who helped strategize the Verzuz battle with him) recorded over three decades ago.
“It ended up being a great era,” he says of songs by Bobby Brown, Karyn White and Johnny Gill. “You never know it ’til it’s passed. Now I’m happy to say I was in a part of those times. Truthfully, we were so busy working from one project to the next that we never got a chance to really reflect on the success or what was happening.”
Their success in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s landed Reid and Babyface a joint venture deal with Arista Records to form their own label, LaFace which spawned TLC, Toni Braxton, Outkast and others. It led to Reid trading the mixing board for the boardroom, becoming an executive and going on to helm the top roles at Arista, Island Def Jam and Epic Records. Reid’s track record is a rare thing indeed, and while the exec’s departure from Epic in 2017 was abrupt and controversial, Edmonds strongly defends his former partner who now runs HitCo, home to Jennifer Lopez, Outkast’s Big Boy and buzzing act SAINt JHN.
Says Edmonds: “It was impressive to think of what L.A. ultimately did. He went to Harvard Business School so he could work at those places and run Epic, Def Jam and Arista. That’s a serious thing for a musician to be able to come and do what he did. That’s not done. That’s what makes him one of the greatest executives ever. He’s way underrated as an executive. He had success with everyone. He signed Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, worked with Bon Jovi, put me with Fall Out Boy. He’s one of the best we’ve ever seen.”
Recent years have found Babyface collaborating with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Bruno Mars and expanding into music supervision with BET’s “American Soul.” Now 62, he has plenty of experiences to mine. Still, says Edmonds: “My personal life didn’t always affect how I wrote. Being in love and the feeling of being in love, that’s like its own world of imagination and of feeling that has nothing to do with real life. … The idea of writing a song is not about writing for yourself but writing for everyone. The possibility of love and heartbreak. You look around and see life around you and write from everyone else experiences as well as yours sometimes.”
To be sure, Edmonds is not resting on his laurels. “Staying in the game, staying relevant … there’s never a point where you can just ride free,” he says. “You can get comfortable with it and say, ‘well ok I’ve done it. I’m good with my life’ but if you’re a worker, then it’s the art that pushes you.”