He may have been the most successful songwriter and producer of the ‘90s, but the 21st century has not yet been kind to Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. The multi-faceted artist first attempted a funky makeover, growing his hair out and working with The Neptunes. The album sold underwhelmingly, as did an album called Grown & Sexy. An attempt at recapturing the fans who’d initially made ‘Face into a superstar, it sounded forced and uninspired, and it sold accordingly, sending Babyface back to the drawing board again.
Now, the guy who has written hits for everyone from TLC and Boyz II Men to Madonna and Clapton is attempting to recapture his muse by covering other people’s material. Playlist, at first glance, may seem like an unlikely project for the R&B legend as eight of the album’s 10 songs are covers of soft rock classics from the Seventies. Among the artists covered here are Bread, Dan Fogelberg, and James Taylor, (twice). It’s not necessarily the list of artists you’d expect to be tributed by a contemporary soul singer, although it makes sense that ‘Face would hold these songs close to his heart, due to his Midwestern upbringing. With minimal adornment, ‘Face, (or, rather, Edmonds, using his full name for the first time in his twenty-year recording career), delivers faithful versions of these songs that wouldn’t have sounded incredibly out of place on a peak-era Babyface record. He adds two newly written and recorded songs that are as powerful as his best work.
As someone who spent his childhood and teenage years listening to “lite” radio stations as much as he did contemporary pop and hip-hop radio, I’m familiar enough with most of these songs that I can compare ‘Face’s covers favorably to the originals. A version of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is effective in it’s simplicity. ‘Face’s beautiful rendition reminds me that I need to pick up some of Croce’s work. He tackles two songs by James Taylor, long one of my favorite vocalists and songwriters. He embellishes upon the original versions slightly, adding a lengthy coda to “Fire & Rain” and a couple of key changes to the uplifting “Shower the People”, and does a good job of it by adding slight twists to these already familiar songs.
Some of ‘Face’s song choices are a bit standard. Does anyone ever cover any Bob Dylan song other than “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”? Some are a bit overplayed. His version of Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” could have used something, anything, to differentiate it from the original. Some are a little bit too sappy, such as his version of Dan Fogelberg’s overwrought “Longer”, but most of the songs included here are well-performed and well-produced. ‘Face relies heavily on his acoustic guitar here, which is a welcome relief considering he could have gone the schmaltzy route and brought out the keyboards and strings.
I even found myself enjoying the songs I wasn’t initially familiar with. The country-flavored “Please Come to Boston”, (originally recorded by Dave Loggins), has a cool tempo change in the chorus as well as some tasteful vocal assistance from Brandy, while his version of Bread’s “Diary” features a stunningly beautiful vocal.
The two new songs here show that ‘Face’s songwriting is better than it’s been in quite some time. Tackling weighty topics like the aftermath of divorce, the heartfelt “Not Going Nowhere”, a must-listen for separated parents and the consequences of war ,“The Soldier Song”, these tunes fit right in with the rest of the album-musically and lyrically. They’re earnest, plain spoken and mature in a way that most popular music isn’t nowadays, and suggest a direction ‘Face should continue moving in going forward.
I’m not exactly sure what the audience is for Playlist, as I’m not sure how many people other than me have record collections with equal parts ‘Face and James Taylor. However a hard sell this album may be, though, it’s a satisfying trip down memory lane. I respect ‘Face’s gamble in covering what are considered some of the “whitest” songs to ever come through radio waves. But we all know good music has nothing to do with color and everything to do with quality. As a result of well-written songs and impassioned vocal performances, Playlist is Babyface’s best work in at least ten years.