Every love song ever played at a family barbecue made in the late ’80s, and ’90s that makes your aunties say “You don’t know nothin’ bout this here!” was written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
The man behind classics such as Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” Toni Braxton’s “Love Should’ve Brought You Home” and Whitney Houston’s “Exhale” (Shoop Shoop) are just a fraction of the 11-time Grammy-award winner, singer-songwriter and producer’s expansive yet undeniably relatable catalog.
The recipient of the 2015 Soul Train’s Legend Award proved his worth in melodies and lyrics when R&B’s greats, old and new, paid tribute to the man whose ability to pen classic love songs is as natural as our necessity to breathe. After an eight-year break, thankfully, Babyface got an itch and decided to return to music with the release of his forthcoming album Return of The Tender Lover. With the lead single “We’ve Got Love,” Babyface serves up a classic love song for the romantics in the world.
Just days ahead of his album release, Babyface spoke with VIBE about the importance of melody and honesty in a song, the real meaning behind Rolling Stone’s famous “Brown Sugar” and weighed in on those Adele and Jazmine Sullivan comparisons that’s been floating around.
Peep what Babyface…excuse me, Mr. Edmonds had to say about it all.
VIBE: What was the first song you wrote before you became famous?
Babyface: The first song I wrote was called “Here I Go Falling In Love” I wrote it in the sixth grade.
Who were you in love with in the sixth grade?
Whoa! You remember her name?
Does she know you wrote a song about her in the sixth grade?
I don’t know if she knows that, but I think she knows I had a crush on her.
The lyrical landscape for music has changed. In 2000, Jagged Edge’s most popular song was “Let’s Get Married” then in 2014 “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” became a hit. How do you think your song “We’ve Got Love” will fare with the masses?
It will fare with those that still believe love is a positive as a opposed to a negative. The truth is “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” I think the song is kind of catchy, but it’s not completely about always what it says, as opposed to how it feels.
Do you believe the lyrics are important, or the vocalist conveying those lyrics are more important?
Lyrics can be important, but ultimately what pulls people in on a song is melody and the tracks, and the way music feels. You know Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar?”
Well, I haven’t heard that song.
Yeah, you’ve heard it before. People love to sing along with it. It’s one of their classics. But most people think they’re singing about a fine black girl.
I’ve never heard that song, please don’t judge me Mr. Edmonds.
(laughs) It’s one of their most famous song that both black and white people love and they sing along with. Most people think it’s just about fine black girls. But let me just read you the lyrics, which is…one second…
Gold coast slave ship, bound for cotton fields.
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Skydog slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Wait, that’s about slavery.
Yes. This is a very famous song and a song that everybody sings along with, black and white and they don’t know that that’s what its about, and why is that? Because it feels so good. It sounds so good. The melody is so nice that you don’t even really pay attention to that part of it, and you love the artist. So when you think about how records are done, and those records that become popular, sometimes it’s about the melody and it’s about having the right chorus and it hits you right. Just because you sing along with it doesn’t mean you agree with the politics of it.
So Mr. Edmonds, what is needed to write a love song, and what’s needed to write a break up song because you’ve done both.
In anything, it’s all about honesty. Is it coming from an honest place? Is it believable coming from whoever’s voice is saying it? Do I believe you? Do I believe that you felt that? That you’ve gone through it? Can you make me believe it? Once you’ve connected in that way, then you’re that much closer to selling the song and it becoming a hit song because of that.
For your song “We’ve Got Love” It’s about a couple who has weathered many storms. Is that coming from an honest place for you?
I think it goes beyond the couple. We’ve all gone through things. The truth is, we’ve all gone through something in this country, everywhere. We’ve been struggling for a long time, but the one thing that seems to cool us out a bit, or get us through tough times is love. That’s the things that seems to make anything better. So I think it’s a bigger story than just a couple, and more than anything.
You have 26 number one hits, you’ve had 125 top 10 R&B hits, you know what you’re doing. Have you ever encountered writer’s block?
How do you counter it?
You just don’t do anything (laughs) You wait it out. If you can’t come up with anything, you just stop writing for that moment. The good news is even with having writer’s block, today there are so many things to write about, to get inspired from by having conversation with people, especially when you’re dealing with things that are as universal as love. The trick is, are you going to find the right melody and hit the right keys to make it special?
Last question, there are a lot of people who believe Adele, despite her talent, and many accolades, a part of her success has a lot to do with her skin color and then you have Jazmine Sullivan who’s equally as talented and can hit just as many notes but isn’t as successful. What’s your take on that?
I think it’s unfair to compare Jazmine Sullivan to Adele. I think they’re two different kinds of artist. Let’s take color out of it. Do you like Adele’s songs? Do you like what she sings about? Adele ultimately did well in such a large way because she effects everybody, and the way that she writes seems to be popular music, not because of her skin color but because she writes great music and it’s popular in that way. Now, when you add all that on and the skin color you say ‘Oh, that’s unique, I didn’t know it was this girl.’ No different then when Elvis Presley started singing and we found out he was a white man, so it certainly made for an interesting story. When Adele gets a hold of something it turns into something else, but the reality is, it’s about her music, her emotion and her pain. I think Jazmine Sullivan is amazing and I think she sounds great, whether I can say Jazmine Sullivan has written the Adele songs? I don’t know if I can say that. Whether at this point she has written copyrights like Adele has written, I can’t really say that. Or if Adele had of done one of Jazmine Sullivan’s songs that it would’ve taken off. I think that with Adele, and that’s why I wouldn’t compare because Adele really writes from personal experience and all that stuff, and her pain and all of that goes into her records, and that’s what makes her stuff real. What did I start the whole conversation off with? Honesty Really honest, and you feel it.