Virtuoso behind-the-scenes man Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who has written and produced hits for stars including Madonna, Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, was himself propelled into stardom's stratosphere in 1994 with the chart-topping ballad "When Can I See You Again." Although other successes followed, including 1996's "Every Time I Close My Eyes" with Mariah Carey, Babyface's recent work has veered dangerously into the territory of watered-down, adult contemporary R&B, and the degree of mainstream recognition his work enjoyed in the mid-1990s has largely eluded him since then.
But with the release of "Face 2 Face," an edgy, funky collection of up-tempo nouveau soul songs in the style of Maxwell and D'Angelo, the man behind the music may once again find himself in front of the flashbulbs.
The album's cover, featuring a grainy, minimalistic shot of the artist looking enigmatic in dark shades, is the first indication that Babyface is abandoning the saccharine soul ballad excesses of R. Kelly in favor of hard-driving Lenny Kravitz cool. And the first track, "Outside In/Inside Out," an alluring jazz-inflected come-on showcasing Babyface's vocal prowess, proves the cover art is no red herring. The song features an impressive Marvin Gaye-influenced falsetto and a horn section spliced with a syncopated beat.
"There She Goes" follows in the same vein, replete with guttural Michael Jackson growl and fast-paced groove. The song features more erudite than average lyrics ("Her walk, her talk, her way/Her savoir faire") and segues into a fluid chorus with smooth-as-butter harmonies.
If only the whole album were this good. While "Face 2 Face" doesn't go the ignominious route of so many R&B and pop albums - that is to say, two phenomenal opening songs followed by 10 tracks of mediocrity, or worse -- it does sag somewhat in the middle. "What If," a maudlin number about lost love, is burdened with an overpowered backbeat that seems at odds with the bittersweet tenor of the song, and the chorus is pleasantly melodic but forgettable.
"Stressed Out" features Babyface's characteristic impeccable production, but its danceable beat fails to eclipse the unremarkable songwriting. Questionable lyrics surface in "Work It Out," when Babyface, without a trace of irony, chivalrously proclaims that he will rescue his girlfriend from a life of squalor and single motherhood. "I got a crib girl/A room for your kid girl" and other such lines mar the song's understated electric guitar work and old-school vinyl scratches.
Babyface redeems himself with "Baby's Mama," a wry, satirical jab at deadbeat dads featuring the rhymes of Snoop Dogg. Unlike similar socially conscious songs, such as City High's "What Would You Do," "Baby's Mama" avoids the pitfalls of pontification. "How Can U Be Down" chronicles betrayal between female friends with surprising acuity and is bolstered by bebop-style vocal flourishes. "I Keep Callin'" brings the album up yet another notch, beginning with a sparse atonal guitar whine and distant drumbeat and launching into a horn- and string-embellished groove.
The album briefly marks a return to Babyface's sensitive balladeer persona with the moving "With Him," featuring acoustic guitar work reminiscent of "When Can I See You Again." The song underscores Babyface's achingly plaintive vocals, and the lyrics are at times embarrassingly frank: "Cause if you really, really didn't want to hurt nobody/You wouldn't have slept with my best friend." Even so, the lyrics do not diminish the mournful beauty of the song's refrain.
The album closes on a strong note with a quartet of nearly flawless songs, often laced with synthesized funk beats and sizzling '70s grooves straight out of the "Shaft" soundtrack. Babyface all but erases his earlier lyrical stumbling with a wordsmith's panache on "Still In Love With U," singing, "All this love I feel inside can't put no arms around me."
"Face 2 Face" may well propel Babyface once again from the side stage of urban crooning to the forefront of contemporary music.