Panthers in Winter
Rejecting Booty-Popping For Baby-Making, Old School R&Amp;B Stars Get Their Aarp Swerve On
So it’s almost shocking to hear the conclusion Babyface reaches one chorus into “Tonight It’s Goin’ Down,” the first track on Grown and Sexy (Arista), his latest album. “It’s time to close the deal/ Gonna sex it up in here,” he sings over mild drum-machine pitter-patter and creamy fake flute. “Tonight we’re making babies/ We’ve waited much too long.” All these steamy sonic signifiers, and dude brings up having babies. Yo, Grandpa: What’s love got to do with it?
On the surface, this old-school sensibility should come as no surprise from Babyface, known to the mother of his two sons as 47-year-old Kenneth Edmonds. For nearly two decades, as a producer, songwriter, artist, and label exec, Baby has served as the face of mature African-American desire. His landmark soundtrack to 1995’s Waiting to Exhale solidified his place in the pop-culture firmament by showcasing his knack for plumbing the inner recesses of the female heart. (No wonder the ascendant emo brats in Fall Out Boy told MTV last month they want Babyface to produce their next album.)
Yet Grown and Sexy represents something of a retrenchment for Edmonds, who made concessions to a 50-style worldview on 2001’s Face 2 Face, a hip-hop-modeled collaboration with younger hit makers like the Neptunes and Snoop Dogg. Throughout the lean, tightly focused new album, Face seems intent on reasserting his ripened R&B bona fides. The title track takes down a (presumably younger) lothario obsessed with his car and his clothes; as always, Face resists the cranky moralizing you’d expect from someone in his position, but calmly recounts the reasons she’d be better off with someone older. (Reason No. 6? “I got a real good job.”) “Sorry for the Stupid Things” and “Drama, Love, and ’Lationships” believably stress the virtue of the long haul (the latter in spite of a title that’s in competition with “My Humps” for the year’s worst). “Good 2 Be in Love” requires no explanation.
Musically, Grown and Sexy accomplishes what Babyface has occasionally struggled with in the past, sounding fresh and modern while tending to the classic soul template that is his bread and butter. (Though it still boasts an embarrassment of songwriting riches, Exhale feels slightly dated today, thanks to the absurd leaps in production technique over the last decade.) “Mad, Sexy, Cool” mines the same vein of lightheaded romance as R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)”—it’s sweet enough to redeem a line like “You got so much flavor/ Sometimes I wanna call you Juicy Fruit.” And “Drama, Love” boasts a stately, complicated melody Burt Bacharach could appreciate. In the relatively hard-hitting “Goin’ Out of Business,” Face even suggests that his hip-hop dalliance might not have been the misstep it appeared to be. “You can take your Usher CD,” he tells a philandering ex as a snare drum cracks onomatopoeically behind him, “I’m-a take my Luther with me.”
You wish he could. When Vandross died in July of complications from a 2003 stroke, the grown and sexy world got a lot smaller. In his version of “If Only for One Night”—from the new all-star Vandross tribute album So Amazing (J)—Face risks the wrath of the “no homo” crowd by turning the tune’s lyric into a remembrance of his old pal. It’s a humble plea for one more chance to work or hang out or do whatever it is that old-school R&B superstars do on the weekend.
Other cuts from Amazing are less emotionally complex than Babyface’s; the majority commemorate Vandross by showcasing the hard physical act of singing. Usher finds a wealth of blue notes in “Superstar”; Mary J. Blige taps into the insatiable hunger that underpins “Never Too Much”; Aretha Franklin wrenches the ever-living shit out of “A House Is Not a Home.” In the title track, lovingly produced by Raphael Saadiq, who lends the track a cozy intimacy with live drums and some welcome room tone, Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder harmonize athletically without sounding like they’re trying to outdo each other.
On A Time to Love (Motown), his first album in 10 years, Wonder sounds mostly like he’s trying to outdo himself. This is exactly what soul-music aficionados (and a few million regular people) lionized Wonder for during his early-’70s creative peak: the way the young genius kept pushing his craft to funkier, busier, more sophisticated heights. The last 20 years of his career have largely been written off as the mushy meanderings of an old man—sometimes unjustly, as in the case of 1991’s sharp Jungle Fever soundtrack—which makes A Time to Love ideal for all sorts of Stevie-is-back claptrap.
Some of the hype, as it happens, is earned: “Moon Blue” is a terrific piece of stripped-down slow-jam funk whose sturdy architecture provides a house (if not a home) for an aimless Wonder piano solo. “Sweetest Somebody I Know” has a bass line that attains whole new levels of nastiness. And opener “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” a duet with the growly gospel singer Kim Burrell, summons a gust of righteous fury it’s fun to imagine as being directed toward George W. Bush.
But Wonder isn’t on totally firm ground here. “Shelter in the Rain,” a would-be tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, is soggy with half-digested sentiment, and “Passionate Raindrops” wastes a Broadway-worthy melody on a Diane Warren-worthy lyric. Still, like Babyface on Grown and Sexy and Vandross before he died, Wonder works hard here to carve out a space for soul music of, for, and by adults. If he’s into making love in a sometimes-embarrassing fashion, whose parents aren’t?
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