You didn't have to live through the '90s to know that 11-time GRAMMY winner Babyface is the mastermind behind so many of the decade's biggest R&B hits. Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," and Toni Braxton's "You're Makin' Me High" are just a few No. 1 singles penned by the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee.
Babyface's legendary status is driven home by 125 Top 10 writer/producer credits, top-tier collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, and Eric Clapton, plus his own iconic hits, such as "Whip Appeal," "When Can I See You," and "Every Time I Close My Eyes." But telling compelling stories — especially from the female perspective — is arguably one of his greatest strengths, as evidenced most recently on Girls' Night Out.
The 13-track collaboration project champions some of today's brightest female R&B stars, including Ari Lennox, Kehlani, and Queen Naija. Lead single "Keeps on Fallin'" with Ella Mai is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance at the 2023 GRAMMYs, which means he's now surpassed 50 GRAMMY nominations. "It was a nice surprise," Babyface tells GRAMMY.com. "It inspires you to keep doing the work."
A master of his craft, Babyface did his homework before getting in the studio with each artist on Girls' Night Out. "I needed to learn how people spoke and how melodies are different. Otherwise, I don't know if I would've been able to speak in their voices," he shares. "I have a much clearer understanding of today's R&B because there is a difference, and it's not necessarily a difference that's any better or any worse. It's just a difference in terms of time, and that's what made the process enjoyable to me."
Though Babyface took more of a mentoring approach with Girls' Night Out, he's no stranger to fostering talented female singers, particularly on the soundtrack for the 1995 movie Waiting to Exhale — which exclusively features Black women. The OST boasts a string of No. 1 and Top 10 hits penned entirely by Babyface himself, including beloved classics like Braxton's "Let It Flow" and Brandy's "Sittin' Up in My Room."
Yet "Not Gon' Cry" by Mary J. Blige — who is nominated in six categories at the 65th GRAMMY Awards — remains among Babyface's most memorable productions for Waiting To Exhale. The timeless ballad, written from character Bernadine’s point of view after her husband of 11 years leaves her for another woman, emerged as the Black woman's anthem for showing resilience in the face of romantic heartbreak and betrayal, but the song almost didn't happen.
"The opening lyrics, 'While all the time that I was loving you, you were busy loving yourself,' just sounded like a real-life conversation, and it sounded like something Mary could say," Babyface explains. "I played it for Andre Harrell, and he said, 'It's okay, but I don't think it's the record for her… Mary's too young for this. She's not 47 years old and she ain't been married and all that.'"
He continues, "My answer to him was, 'Mary's singing for everyone else… and she ultimately became a voice for other women.' It wasn't her personal story, but her voice could deliver that."
Babyface's musical legacy developed further with the formation of LaFace Records in 1989 with music executive L.A. Reid. In the label’s glory days, LaFace launched the careers of Braxton, TLC, OutKast, Pink, Usher, Ciara, Goodie Mob, and Donell Jones. But one of his most impressive feats isn't talked about enough: that Whitney Houston selected Babyface to help usher in the more R&B-oriented sound of her third studio album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight.
"They came to LaFace because they wanted a Blacker record, but when I was writing 'I'm Your Baby Tonight,' I wasn't thinking R&B… I was just writing a Whitney record," he says. "There's an urban flavor to it, but the truth is it wasn't that R&B, but everything is R&B if a Black artist touches it… the idea was to run away from songs like 'How Will I Know' and 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' that were big records for her that they said weren't Black enough."
Babyface and Houston proved to be a winning musical duo, and "I'm Your Baby Tonight" was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 33rd GRAMMY Awards. The collaboration also gave Houston her eighth No. 1 hit, tying with Madonna for the female artist with most No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time.
The success with divas like Houston and Braxton allowed Babyface to explore his versatility as a hitmaker for superstars outside of the R&B realm. For the lush sounds heard on Madonna's sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories, the pop icon teamed up with Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, and of course Babyface, who co-wrote "Forbidden Love" and "Take a Bow." The latter song became her longest running No. 1 hit.
"The track was already laid down and when we brought in the live strings, which was Madonna's suggestion, it became a whole other thing. I think it was the combination of my background vocals behind Madonna's that just made for a very unique song in that sense for her," Babyface recalls. "She was nervous because she just wasn't used to singing that controlled and being that vulnerable. I remember how we sat there and wrote the song together [at the Hit Factory Studios in New York City], so that's a really cool memory."
As the 64-year-old musician enters the next stage of his four-decade career, he has plenty to look forward to: Touring with eight-time GRAMMY winner Anita Baker, a possible deluxe version of Girls' Night Out, and the upcoming 30th anniversary of his third studio album, For the Cool in You, which spawned the top 5 hit "When Can I See You." (The acoustic tune earned Babyface his first GRAMMY for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.)
For all his success, Babyface has remained humble and his greatest joy comes from being able to hear a talented vocalist bring a song he wrote to life. "The best part is when you get into the studio with this idea, this little demo and then, when someone like Whitney, Aretha, or Boyz II Men sings your song, it becomes a hit before your eyes," he says. "They take it to a place I never imagined it could go."
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