Before this month, Babyface’s last album was released in 2007. He wasn’t completely out of commission in the intervening years, doing boutique collaborations like Lil Wayne’s “Comfortable,” which he co-wrote with Kanye West for 2008′s Tha Carter III, or Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had,” a mostly ignored single off her 2011 album 4. But until 2013, the forgotten king of ’90s R&B seemed content to work sparingly, and largely behind the scenes, picking his spots carefully as pop music mutated away from the stars and songs he minted.
But last year, he had an improbable return to power. He was one of the string-pullers behind arguably 2013′s best pop album, and the face of one of the year’s most rewarding traditionalist R&B singles. The album was Ariana Grande’s Yours Truly, the debut from the ex-Nickelodeon star that opened at No. 1 when it was released last August. Given her history as the star of that network’s Victorious, the 20-year-old’s fan base is naturally young. Yet her album is a monument to the crossover R&B of the ’90s that ruled the radio when they were toddlers. For one, Grande unavoidably sounds like Mariah Carey, especially when she effortlessly executes scrambling vocal runs. But sonically, the album’s roots are deep in songs that have not quite faded away, including samples of indelible smashes by Big Pun (“Still Not a Player”), Mary J. Blige (“Real Love”), and Lil Kim (“Crush on You”). Those are hits from Babyface’s time, but ones that stood in contrast to his signature sound.
That sound — somnolent and soft ballads for singers with rich, deep voices — is strictly adult-contemporary in 2014. Where ’90s hits by artists like R. Kelly, Usher, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu still routinely get radio play on contemporary R&B playlists, the only place on the dial where you can hear old songs by Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston or, well, Babyface himself, is at stations that routinely give away tickets to jazz concerts where you’re encouraged to bring your own wine. Popular music does not have time for old Babyface.
His work on Grande’s record — he did about half, while the rest was handled by a rising writer named Harmony Samuels — is both brilliant and unexpected. The music has the texture, pep and melodies of classic Mariah, but her Babyface collaborations glimmer with modern idiosyncrasies: screwed vocals, snare drums from Southern rap music as filtered through EDM “trap”; doo-wop by way of Glee, samples that first appeared on Girl Talk records. To call the songs a reinvention of Babyface’s sound would be to connect it to his old material in the first place — instead, it feels like he’s tapping into a whole new part of his brain.
It would also ignore “Hurt You,” a duet with frequent collaborator Toni Braxton that dropped late last summer to signal the arrival of their fantastic new record Love, Marriage, & Divorce. Owing perhaps to the direction pop music has taken since he receded, the single opens as a piano ballad before gathering into something like a slow gallop in the chorus. It functions as a dance record, but a mid-tempo one with pitched-up drama. The person it reminds me of most, ironically, is Ne-Yo — an artist whose straddling of coffee-shop R&B and Hot 100 pop charts made him the aughts’ answer to Babyface. But “Hurt You,” and the album itself, sounds exactly like you would expect a comeback from Babyface and Braxton to sound: basically like falling in slow motion onto a very expensive bed covered in silk sheets. You will detect zero nods to the creeping influence of Houston rap.
Where on Yours Truly Babyface popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist, on Love, Marriage, & Divorce he examines his legacy and seethes “remember?” The album is tailored appropriately at 11 tracks, but almost all of them stand up to his classic period, in which he produced the bulk of Secrets, Braxton’s best solo LP. “Sweat” is a dripping argument for make-up sex — “If you really wanna fight we can take it to the bed tonight” — highlighted by Braxton smearing smoky backing vocals all over the track’s climax. “Take It Back” grooves exactly like a classic Sade song, with Braxton delivering a perfectly sung plea for reconciliation. The stunner is “I Wish,” written by Braxton after her parents’ divorce, sung from the point of view from her mother. “I hope, I hope/ I hope she gives you a disease,” Braxton sings in the first verse before hoping to fall back into his arms: “I pray, I pray/ I pray your new baby is a boy/ Please don’t have a girl, cause you’ll give that woman the world.”
The album comes from a deep place of experience, and it is as sexy, resonant, catchy and relatable as you’d want any pop music to be. But of course, Babyface and Toni Braxton don’t really count as pop music anymore, and they might not even count as R&B, at least as far as its gatekeepers are concerned. To programmers, Babyface’s sound is from another era: Though Love, Marriage & Divorce debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s album chart, “Hurt You” has only knocked softly on the door at contemporary R&B radio.
This dynamic leaves Babyface in a curious, but fascinating, place. As his work with Ariana Grande proves, he can still write contemporary pop hits. He’s also still is a star at “adult” R&B radio, where “Hurt You” hit number one after “Blurred Lines” spent 17 weeks at the top. But he was long ago pushed aside by those in control of contemporary rap and R&B playlists, and they don’t seem in too much of a rush to welcome him back.