At the height of his fame in the mid-'90s, Babyface was working with the likes of Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Madonna — inescapable, chart-topping divas who dominated airwaves and MTV, exuding a poise, swagger, and star power that felt unmatched. But the legendary songwriter and producer thinks things have only improved for women in pop and R&B in the past two and a half decades.
"The girls today have a much better sense of themselves," he says. "They're not afraid to say, 'Well, I'm not going to say that.' Producers and the record company aren't as scary anymore. [Back then] whoever the A&R person was, you had to listen. You lost your independence. That's gone."
Babyface's solidarity with self-confident ladies has distinguished his career since the late 1980s, and it persists today. The man behind hits like "Breathe Again," "You're Makin' Me High," "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," and "Take a Bow" — as well as his own gems ("It's No Crime," "When Can I See You") — returns in October with his new studio album, Girls Night Out. It boasts a murderers' row of contemporary R&B heavyweights (Kehlani, Ari Lennox, Tink, and Ella Mai, among others) collaborating with the 12-time Grammy winner on tracks supple enough to rival their best stuff. The artists all sound jazzed, and Babyface is canny enough as a co-producer and duet partner to add some harmony here and burnish a melody there without ever coming off like he's desperate to be hip. He doesn't compete so much as complement.
P Music Group Babyface
"It was a place to showcase these voices I love," he says. "I didn't wanna step on them. I didn't want to age it. I didn't want to be the creepy old uncle. I wanted to be in the room, give advice, and that's it."
Few of his trademark touches appear on Girls Night Out — listeners won't find the tinkling keys and acoustic guitar filigrees of his salad years. But the full-throated chorus of the slick, Elle Mai–fronted "Keeps on Fallin'" and the spareness of the programmed beats on Queen Naija's "Game Over" suggest Babyface still trusts the singer as much as the song.
He has compared his experience helming Girls Night Out to his work on another project spotlighting formidable female talent: the soundtrack to the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale, which saw him writing and producing for Houston, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Brandy, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Faith Evans. That record, released with the concurrent rise of hip-hop as the new pop, set the standard for plush, polished R&B in a way that validated the artists' and their audiences' adulthood. Think of Waiting to Exhale as the Saturday Night Fever of sophisticated '90s soul: newcomers and icons giving it their all on material as identifiable with the era as a slip dress or a Stüssy cap.
To his credit, though, Babyface shows little patience for nostalgia. He appreciates the changes he's seen in a business that he has largely shaped as one of the biggest producers in any genre. He doesn't bemoan the impact of streaming. If anything, he thinks it has created more freedom and opportunity for young musicians.
"For a good while R&B was sitting in the same place, with the artists releasing the same kind of music," he says. "Now this genre's breaking open. You don't see Kehlani at the top of the charts, but she doesn't have to be. Adult R&B is no longer for the adults — it's for Summer Walker and Bruno Mars as well as for classic artists like myself."
Babyface recently caught up with EW to share the stories behind some of his favorite collaborations with women.
"Breathe Again" — Toni Braxton (1993)
"The biggest thing Toni's brought to the table is her voice, so recognizable and distinct. This was a song I was initially writing for [my label] LaFace [for another artist]. While writing it, I realized, 'Uh-oh, this should be somewhere else. It should be with Toni.'"
"Take a Bow" — Madonna (1994)
"I don't believe anyone who's worked with Madonna would've made a great Madonna song if she hadn't been involved as a writer and producer. We wrote it together. We each brought lyrics and melodies, singing them back and forth. She also brought in the arranger for the strings, which sound amazing."
"Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" — Whitney Houston (1995)
"I knew I was not going to do another 'I Will Always Love You.' This was one of the last songs written for Waiting to Exhale. Whitney wasn't necessarily going to sing. She said, 'I might do something, I might not.' It wasn't automatic. But the film needed a theme. I had some words and music with the hopes that she might sing, and I never quite finished it, but at the moment 'shoop, shoop' seemed to me the words to go with. They felt so good, and I said to myself, 'Why would you change that?'"
"Not Gon' Cry" — Mary J. Blige (1995)
"It was definitely a left turn for Mary at the time, melodically as well as lyrically. I remember sitting outside a Four Seasons in my Land Cruiser with [record executive] Andre Harrell, and his initial reaction was, 'She should not do this — this song makes her sound like an older woman.' I made the argument, 'Mary is the voice not just for her generation but for everyone, and I just have to disagree with you on this one.' Good thing I did — it became Mary's first top 5 pop hit."
"Liquor" — Babyface feat. Ari Lennox (2022)
"It came together when I asked Ari, 'What's up with you? Are you in love? Not in love?' She said, 'I'm not in love.' She ain't got no broken heart. I asked her what kind of men she liked. She said, 'I like my men no-bulls---, straight-up — like two shots of liquor.'"
"Seamless" — Babyface feat. Kehlani (2022)
"It started with a track [songwriter-producer] Khristopher Riddick-Tynes had, and initially we were going for a whole other thing — a wedding song. Then somewhere in the middle Kehlani said, 'Nah, this is too boring.' So we changed it up."
Girls Night Out is out Oct. 21.
Make sure to check out more of EW's Fall Music Preview, running all this week through Sept. 30.
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