First there was the banging introduction. Clearly them Neptunes were up to their usual brew of post-millennial digitized funk. I’m thinking Mystical, who they laced lovely into the top-10 (“Shake Your Ass”). Naw, maybe it’s that nigga Jigga again. Maybe it’s another somethin’ somethin’ from that forthcoming N.E.R.D. joint (“you can get another lap dance wit’ me”). Oh, shit . . . that’s MFkin’ Babyface. B-A-B-Y-F-A-C-E??????!!!!! Now I understand the market has changed. The brother who regularly goes platinum behind the boards with Toni Braxton, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Boyz II Men, TLC and Whitney Houston and helped re-define serious adult contemporary music with a string of quality hits like “When Will I See You” and “The Cool in You” has got to switch-up to stay relevant. I mean, even Luther—excuse me Loofah—had to show up to the video shoot rocking Sean Jean and get remixed to a sample of Snoop’s “Lay Low” to remain relevant. But damn, Babyface and the Neptunes? Of course then I had to pause. Babyface is from the Midwest. Ohio—the home of The Isley Brothers, The Ohio Players, the late Roger Trotman (ZAPP). Ohio—the state that has had funk on lock down for nearly four decades. “Babyface” a name given to Kenny Edmonds 20 years ago by Bootsy Collins, as if we can believe ‘Face and Bootsy were ever in the same room together, let alone a studio. He got funk in his genes even if, by his own admission, he was more into Bread’s “Make It with You” when he was a kid. Face 2 Face, the new release from Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, attempts to return him to that fertile Ohio funk landscape with mixed results.
Face 2 Face is the debut release of Edmond’s Arista-distributed label Nu America. After single-handedly creating the niche market for black “owned” boutique labels with LaFace, the label that Edmonds created with former production partner L.A. Reid, Edmonds now works for Reid, who was installed in July of 2000 as the head of Arista/BMG after Clive “the A&R God” Davis was “deposed” last year. Given Davis’ success thus far with his new label J (also distributed by Arista/BMG)—damn if Alicia Keys don’t get played on every radio and video outlet in the world—there is considerable pressure for Reid to duplicate Davis’ successes. With his move from Epic to the Arista/BMG family (though LaFace was distributed by Arista, ‘Face recorded for Epic/SONY), Babyface has become one of Arista’s flagship products, along with Carlos Santana (what a difference 10 million units makes) and Whitney Houston, who is still alive and recently inked a new deal with the label. In this context, Face 2 Face is basically a collection of commercial friendly ditties aimed to sure up ‘Face’s usual adult-contemporary audiences, while attempting to introduce him to the ghetto-pop audiences where Jagged Edge, Destiny’s Child and J-Lo have been so well received.
If there is one striking feature that distinguishes “Nu American” Babyface from the classic version, it is the unveiling of a grating sonorous falsetto. While this new sound has been compared to Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto, it is more likely influenced by that of Neptunes “vocalist” Pharrell Williams’ dizzying mind-numbing falsetto which has “graced” releases by Jaz Z (“I Just Wanna Love U (Give it to Me)”) and Ray J (“Wait a Minute”). Admittedly Babyface’s falsetto brings a new dimension to a vocal style that was functional at best-brother Kevon Edmonds arguably has the best voice in the family. Thus The Neptunes produced lead single “There She Goes” was the perfect vehicle for ‘Face’s “new face” and one of his strongest singles alongside “For the Cool in You” (For the Cool in You, 1993) and “It’s No Crime” (Tender Lover, 1989). As the story goes, ‘Face rolled up into a club with Nu America president (and under-40 industry veteran) Andre Harrell where Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You” was blaring. According to ‘Face, Harrell (who introduced P-Diddy to the game at Uptown), convinced him that he could have “people on the floor throwing their hands up to a Babyface song.”
Though less kinetic than the lead single, ‘Face’s falsetto is perfectly fitted for “Work it Out”, one of his first forays into social realism. Babyface tinges the gospel fringe (as if we can ever imagine ‘Face anywhere near Muscle Shoals) with “I Keep Calling” and “Don’t Take It Personal”, which both hint at “Let’s Do It Again”-era Curtis Mayfield. The opening track “Outside In, Inside Out”, is the closet thing in texture to the lead single and is another effective vehicle for ‘Face’s “new” artistic sensibilities throughout Face 2 Face. Overall these tracks are very listenable if indistinct tracks that make the project a worthwhile investment.
Ironically, Babyface consistently missteps on the recording’s ballads. “What If . . . “, “With Him” and the painful “U Should Know” (‘Face in Keith Sweat-like begging mode) contain none of the nuances usually associated with a Babyface ballad and falter accordingly. In the most celebrated collaboration on Face 2 Face, ‘Face teams with Snoop on “Baby’s Mama”. While the subject matter is laudable, the track is easily one of the most incongruous collaborations of the past two or three years.
Given expectations associated with an artist of Babyface’s caliber, Face 2 Face break little new ground and despite attempts to re-cast him, the recording finds the artist in stasis. For what it is Face 2 Face is a quality recording, in the vein of anything done by Case, Joe, or Jesse Powell, but audiences have come to expect so much more from Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds.