I have a playlist in my iTunes library called “R&B’s Golden Years.” It’s a collection of 76 of my favorite songs from the seven year period between 1988 and 1995, when urban pop radio was dominated by the genre’s Holy Trinity of producers: Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Babyface.
I enjoy this era of music so much that when I come across a song that’s missing from my collection a simultaneous wave of anguish (at the fact that I somehow neglected the track) and excitement (at the anticipation of downloading it and playing it on repeat until I fall asleep that night) sweeps over me, large enough to wipe away any particular thought I was having the moment the song in question entered my psyche.
The reasons these songs are so dear to me in 2012 are many. Not least of all are the formative memories they elicit from a contemporarily occurring adolescence. Most of the artists that populated the charts at the time slid through with sweetly sentimental lyrics, just sexy enough to push buttons but lacking the blatant raunch of what came later (Jodeci’s 1993 Diary of a Mad Band was a major shift in the tone and I met it with both apprehension and voyeuristic delight).
In the end, though, what made it all stick was great pop music craftsmanship. And no producer of the time had his pulse on the common listeners’ inner metronome more firmly than Babyface. Chart accolades aside, his musical virtues gave rise to TLC, Toni Braxton and Boyz II Men, and spawned copycats both behind the mic (Jon B, Tony Rich) and the production boards (Rodney Jerkins).
At age sixteen I fell in love to songs penned and composed by Babyface and, not two years ago in my mid-30s, was distressed when I dated a woman just young enough to have an R&B frame-of-reference that completely lacked him. (She and I didn’t last long. My current girlfriend counts Brownstone’s 1994 “If You Love Me” as one of her all-time favorite songs. You don’t need to guess at how well it’s going.)
For the purposes of indulging myself (and as a nod to fellow music bloggers inching ever so slightly toward their fourth decade on this planet), below are my five favorite Babyface jams of all time.
“It’s No Crime” – Babyface (Tender Lover; 1989)
Babyface’s first Billboard Hot 100 single as a solo artist. The video is a good reason as to why the 1980s were so awesome.
“Every Little Step” – Bobby Brown (Don’t Be Cruel; 1989)
Some friends and I have a standing plan to dress like Bobby and his back-up dancers for Halloween this year. It remains to be seen if we find the girls to join us (here’s hoping October in New York is unseasonably warm). Remember when your favorite male R&B singers didn’t look like they were on human growth hormone? Those were better days. As a minor aside, this might be my favorite song of all time. I’m not even joking.
“Love Shoulda Brought You Home” – Toni Braxton (Boomerang Soundtrack; 1992)
Toni Braxton was introduced to the pop music world via the Boomerang Soundtrack, the last decent Eddie Murphy vehicle before his long and tedious decline. This track was a monster: Fresh new R&B voice over a classy throwback jam.
“Can We Talk” – Tevin Campbell (I’m Ready; 1993)
I still lament the fact Tevin Campbell’s career never went off the way it should have. I don’t know if there’s been a purer male voice in R&B since. My girl and I re-enact the scenes from this video whenever we’re in Central Park, unfortunate sweater vest and all.
“This Is For The Lover in You” – Babyface feat. LL Cool J, Jody Watley, Howard Hewett, and Jeffrey Daniel (The Day; 1996)
I’m cheating a little here. This track came out in 1996, a spell past the “golden year” period I outlined above. It’s important though because it pretty much marks the time I stopped paying attention to Babyface. By then, Puff Daddy had me fully distracted and the ghost of Tupac was beginning its impending haunt of pop culture.
This joint was still a winner though, a (sort-of) remake of a Shalamar song with the same name, it features a perfectly pristine bass line and dramatic sweeping strings. It also completed LL’s full transformation from Queens MC roughneck to pop-life loverman. The cameos from Jody Watley and Shalamar’s Howard Hewett and Jeffrey Daniel were a terrific nod to Soul Train (R.I.P. Don Cornelius). The flying guitars behind Babyface also inspired a shot in this later gem of a video by Justin Timberlake, an artist who definitely took a few cues from ‘Face.