Arguably the most important songwriter/producer of the 90s, Indianapolis born Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds began his musical apprenticeship as part of Bootsy Collins' 70s touring band. He later joined the group Manchild before teaming with Antonio "LA" Reid in the early 80s to form the group The Deele. They were signed to SOLAR Records and scored early with the rather unimaginative funk piece, "Body Talk."
The group continued with moderate chart success, but Babyface and LA Reid began expanding outside the Deele's confines as songwriters, most notably providing the Whispers' 1987 crossover comeback vehicle, "Rock Steady," a compelling dance cut that hit the Top 5 on both the Pop and Soul charts. The success of that number brought Babyface to the attention of the music world and also began a shift in his compositions to more melodic, almost classic pop-structured tunes. His immense skills as a songwriter allowed him to bridge musical styles, creating hits in Funk, New Jack, Urban Adult Contemporary and Pop markets.
Following the success of the saccharine "Two Occasions" (about as big a contrast from "Body Talk" as one could imagine) for The Deele in 1987, Babyface and Reid began working on Face's Tender Lover, an unadulterated smash that boasted the uber-infectious dance hits "It's No Crime" and "Tender Lover" and the Top Ten midtempo "Whip Appeal," and which effectively spelled the end for The Deele. The Babyface/LA machine became a juggernaut that year, as the two began a decade-long string as the most successful writing/production team in popular music, winning a slew of Grammy Awards (including four Producer of the Year wins) while creating top hits for Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston, Karyn White, Toni Braxton and especially Boyz II Men. Two hits for the latter act, "I'll Make Love To You" and "End of the Road," became among the longest charting #1's in Pop history. These songs showed Edmonds' strong sense of hooks as he created irresistible melodies on par with many of the all-time great pop writers. Unfortunately, they also highlighted an often jarring lack of insight as a lyricist, with him often relying on trite or immaturely sexed-up lyrics that detracted from the songs -- a shortfall that didn't hurt sales of his dozens of hit compositions, but which ultimately may prevent his wonderful musical compositions from becoming intergenerational standards.
Babyface's success writing for others occasionally left little time for his own solo career. So while his albums For the Cool In You (which included the Grammy winning acoutical ballad "When Will I See You Again") and The Day were solid hits, Edmonds was never prolific enough as a performer to achieve the consistent level of success that he brought to others.
The 90s saw Edmonds also working increasingly in movies, including smash Whitney Houston soundtracks The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale, the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang, and Garth Brooks' ill-fated Chris Gaines project.
Babyface's singing career had peaked by the time of his Face 2 Face project in 2001, and despite his attempts to remain contemporary, his appeal was essentially limited to his longtime adult audiences. He took several years off before recording the more introspective Grown and Sexy, which had a big first week before fading relatively quickly from the charts. He fully gave into senior artist trends by issuing an album of remakes, Playlist, in 2007. It was seven years before he returned on record, issuing a very nice album of duets with Toni Braxton that showed he still had an audience wanting to hear more.
Ultimately, it is difficult to examine the last three decades of popular music without pausing quite a while to examine Babyface's work. He has been one of the most prolific, successful writer/producers of his generation, and his sense of melody has been impeccable and his impact immense.
By Chris Rizik