New York — Art can be inspired by even the most mundane experiences, and for iconic singer-songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the idea for his latest creation, “Girls Night Out,” was sparked while running an errand at the drugstore.
“I went to Walgreens and as I was in there, this younger girl says, ‘Are you Babyface?” recalled the 11-time Grammy winner. She went on to tell him, “I didn’t listen to you before, but I watched Verzuz and I really liked a lot of the things. And so, I’m a fan now.’”
That 2020 Verzuz event with New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley — with much of the country in pandemic lockdown — introduced him to a younger generation of R&B lovers not familiar with his legendary catalog. The interest from younger fans spurred him to begin conceptualizing what would become “Girls Night Out,” released last week. It’s his first project since 2015’s “Return of the Tender Lover.”
“I kind of had slowed down in … putting things out,” revealed the crooner. “I wasn’t feeling inspired.”
The 13-track album features collaborations with some of R&B’s hottest female talent, including Ella Mai, Kehlani and Ari Lennox, as well as rising stars like Muni Long and Queen Naija. Face weaves his musical expertise into today’s sonic climate, far from his hit songs that now play on late-night Quiet Storm formats — and that’s not a bad thing.
The structure of “Girls Night Out” is reminiscent of the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, widely regarded as one of the most popular film compilations of all-time. That 1995 soundtrack was written and produced entirely by Babyface, as he crafted songs for superstars like Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Toni Braxton and Aretha Franklin. But this time around, “Girls Night Out” was intentionally collaborative.
“On ‘Exhale,’ I just wrote all the music and said, ‘Here, you sing this,’” explained the 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee. “I love co-writing because there’s so much to learn from it. We get stuck in our ways as a writer or even just what you’re used to: the age difference, the words that I’m not used to saying…I didn’t want to do an album that sounded like yesterday. I wanted one to sound fresh and sound like today.”
“Girls Night Out” began to take form after working with Ella Mai on “Keeps on Fallin’,” a flip of Tevin Campbell’s beloved “Can We Talk” record written by Face. “Keeps on Fallin’” hit No. 2 on Billboard’s adult R&B airplay chart.
“Once we finished that, we felt like, ‘All right, I think we might have something special here,’” said Babyface, who has writing credits on every song and production credits on all but one.
Standout tracks include “The Recipe” with “Muni Long which features a sample of Babyface’s 1989 classic, “Soon as I Get Home,” as well as “Whatever” with Tink which samples his hit “Whip Appeal.” There’s also “Liquor,” in which Ari Lennox sultrily sings of desiring her man in his authentic, raw form: “No rocks, no blend, straight up, just you/…I need one hundred from my man, he can’t be eighty proof.”
“They’re far more invested in their voice in terms of what they say and how they say it, and even in the writing aspect of it…that wasn’t so much of the late ’80s and ‘90s. All the artists weren’t necessarily into that,” said Babyface of this new generation of female talent. “They got to make sure it’s an honest thing from them.”
Possessing a credit list far too lengthy to print, Babyface began making his mark in music in the late ’80s before finding massive success in the ’90s through early 2000s writing and producing for megastars like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Madonna, Boyz II Men, Usher, Celine Dion and frequent musical collaborator Toni Braxton, who refers to herself as Babyface’s “muse.” He also built a very successful solo career with major hits like, “And Our Feelings,” “Never Keeping Secrets,” “When Can I See You” and “Every Time I Close My Eyes.”
While his legendary status has long been solidified during his three-decade career, the “What If” artist hesitates to accept the acknowledgement. Fortunately, his music made the case long ago.
“I’ve always looked at myself as a producer and songwriter first — not necessarily as a celebrity or a singer,” explained Babyface. “It’s not to downplay what I’ve done, but I just know that the things that I have done at this particular point, I’m very happy and I’m very blessed to have done it.…if I get labeled ‘G.O.A.T.’ or legend in the process, well, that’s wonderful but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love doing this job.”
Gary Gerard Hamilton is an entertainment journalist for The Associated Press. His favorite Babyface songs are “What If” and “Reason for Breathing.” He loves the Babyface-written “Sittin’ Up in My Room” by Brandy and prefers “I’m Ready” by Tevin Campbell over “Can We Talk.” Follow Gary at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.