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Babyface tries being ‘Grown & Sexy’

On new album, he decides a more mature sound fits him better
/ Source: Billboard

Grown and sexy. The phrase aptly describes the audience that recently gathered for the taping of BET’s forthcoming Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds special. It’s also the title of the songwriter/producer’s latest album.

“It means being comfortable with who you are, where you are in your life,” Babyface says of the title for the July 26 J Records release. “That confidence is what makes you sexy. But there’s still a certain amount of youth quality to the record.”

Which prompts the question: How will Babyface’s latest fusion of youthful sensibilities and his patented, silky R&B fare with the public?

The answer four years ago was, “Not very well.” “Face2Face” featured a falsettoed and profanity-spewing Babyface getting edgy with Snoop Dogg and others. Despite a top 10 R&B hit with the sexy, Neptunes-produced “There She Goes,” the album has sold less than 500,000 units, far fewer copies than his previous efforts.

'Mixed things'“The actual process was amazing,” Babyface recalls of “Face2Face,” whose release date coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies. “I did mixed things on that, which was good. You can always learn.

“It’s still a very important record in my career. Things I learned about singing differently, messing around with how a song might flow differently ... I wouldn’t have been able to grow without doing that record.”

He also stresses that while “Grown & Sexy” is contemporary, it features “classic Babyface songs tweaked with some of today’s production values so it can keep the same fans and still grab a new audience.”

In other words, there will be no major surprises as there were on “Face2Face.” BMG North America CEO Clive Davis “wanted me to do something with a youthful, fun edge to it without people asking, ’What are you doing?!”’ Babyface says.

KHHT (Hot 92 Jamz) Los Angeles music director Damon Knight believes that the masses will accept “Grown & Sexy.” “It will introduce a new generation of R&B faithful to a man that ’grown folks’ already know and love.” He goes on to call the album’s first single, “Sorry for the Stupid Things,” the “perfect apology anthem.”

Knight’s prediction is on point, gauging by the audience’s reaction when Babyface performed the single and the title track during the BET taping. Whether strumming his guitar, playing keyboards or just singing (and joined by brother Kevon on several songs), a clearly invigorated and impassioned Babyface fed off the love fest between himself and an appreciative, sing-along audience.

Songwriting and a solo careerAs a Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer, Babyface was a leading force in R&B/pop music from the late ’80s through the ’90s. His writing and production skills graced hits by Bobby Brown (”Every Little Step”), Sheena Easton (”The Lover in Me”), Johnny Gill (”My, My, My”), Whitney Houston (”I’m Your Baby Tonight”), Boyz II Men (”End of the Road,” “I’ll Make Love to You”) and Eric Clapton, whose Babyface-produced “Change the World” won a Grammy as record of the year in 1996. A year earlier, Babyface scored acclaim for the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack.

That long list of hit collaborations does not take into account Babyface’s earlier success with Antonio “L.A.” Reid (now CEO of the label Island Def Jam) -- first as members of the Deele (”Two Occasions”) and later as co-founders of LaFace Records, home to Toni Braxton, TLC, OutKast and Usher. Or Babyface’s own solo career, which took off with the 1989 No. 1 R&B/No. 7 pop single “It’s No Crime.” His solo hit list includes such crossover classics as “Tender Lover,” “Whip Appeal,” “Never Keeping Secrets” and “When Can I See You.”

Prefacing the performance of his new songs with his oldies but goodies at the taping, Babyface said he is as “shocked as anyone” by the scope of his work. In putting together the special and a short tour co-headlining with Anita Baker, he says he prepped by listening to his old songs with a fan’s ear.

“I heard passion; that’s what I think made people gravitate to my music in the first place. If I don’t do anything else, I’ve got to make sure I have passion.”

Making sure adults get 'Sexy'Acknowledging that reaching adult audiences through video play can be limited, J Records manager of urban marketing Michelle Sanchez-Boyce says the label opted to shoot the BET special. “There aren’t many outlets for an adult video to be played,” she says. “We figured we’d get a good run for our money by creating a stylized visual to promote the album.”

The hourlong special -- whose audience was chosen from contest tie-ins with radio and -- will premiere July 26. It also will be edited into a half-hour show, a video and a commercial spot. Set to air the various formats are BET and its sister stations BET Jazz, VH1 and VH1 Soul.

The ever-busy Babyface is producing a Maurice Gibb tribute album that lists Paul McCartney, Jagged Edge, Sheryl Crow, the Black Eyed Peas and Rascal Flatts among its contributors. (”Even Snoop Dogg wants to come,” he says.) He is also working with singers Musiq and Calvin Richardson on their new projects. But he feels there may be another Babyface record inside him. “It might be sooner this time; I’ll cut it and see.”

Meanwhile, he is not averse to being part of the “new” old school: Mariah Carey’s No. 1 song “We Belong Together” samples his “Two Occasions.”

“Mariah did me a huge favor,” he says. “It’s official now. Old school used to be Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. Now ’new’ old school is New Edition and Babyface. And that’s a good thing.”