Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was so omnipresent during the 1990s that I’m sure many fans of pop and R&B were sick of him. The soundtracks, the monster hits for every artist from Boyz II Men to Madonna to Toni Braxton to the 1996 Olympic theme song – he owned the music world. So, why did some of his best work ever end up never being released?
The three-time consecutive Grammy winner for Producer of the Year (95-97) was accused of being formulaic; the only trouble for the critics and others was it’s his formula. We thought that after 2000’s A Collection of His Greatest Hits, an era was ending. 2001’s Face2Face had the misfortune and bad timing to be released on September 11. Also, some had played the “formula” card because the first single, “There She Goes,” was an unapologetic hip-hop track with a cameo. When the rest of the album was mid-tempo dance-pop and standard Edmonds balladry, the reviewers were apparently disappointed.
I will admit that I have only listened to 3 of the 14 tracks on the disc, but two of them, the embarrassingly personal “With Him” and the pleading “What If” deserve placement alongside the best of this artist’s formidable hits. We’ll get to those in a second. The next release that wasn’t disavowed or sent to a parallel universe along with Evil Spock and his beard was 2005’s Grown & Sexy, which thankfully contains two tracks from this mysterious lost release we are discussing.
But not the best two, mind you.
What happened? In 2004, Arista Records was set to release A Love Story, but for some reason declined to do so. Perhaps the firing of then-label president and Babyface crony “L.A.” Reid played a role; I don’t know. What I can say is that it’s a great loss to music listeners. It’s very close to perfect; there are songs on this album that I like more than any Babyface song written or performed between 1986 and 2000.
To understand the magnitude of what I just said, you have to understand what Babyface albums after 1986’s overlooked Lovers and the dozens of megahits penned for other artists have done to the music scene. Let me simply quote Allmusic’s biography: “Released in 1989, Tender Lover caught fire, spinning off four singles over the next year, including the R&B chart smashes “It's No Crime” (number one) and “Whip Appeal” (number two; both also reached the pop Top Ten); the album also went double platinum.” It continues, “The proper follow-up to Tender Lover didn't appear until 1993; even so, For the Cool in You was an even bigger hit than its predecessor, going triple platinum and producing Babyface's first Top Five pop hit, the change-of-pace acoustic guitar ballad “When Can I See You…”
As I recall, there were 5 R&B Top 40 singles on that release alone (and 4 Top Tens). I would note that 1996’s The Day was itself a near-perfect song cycle, producing the pop Top Ten wedding standard “Every Time I Close My Eyes.” In addition to having his fingerprints all over the majority of R&B and pop hits performed by others between 1988-96, he continued producing, notably the debut album of some guy named Usher (and countless others). I’ll leave it to Allmusic to summarize: “You'd be hard-pressed to name a '90s hitmaker with a track record more consistently successful and versatile than Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds.”
So how did I find out about this unreleased (or under-released) LP? I had an account with imeem.com (Note to the overlords: I will not join MySpace to recover my beloved playlist.) where I heard the best track, “Together Forever” on streaming audio, complete with album title. YouTube provided me with the third-best track, “Wish That I Could Tell You.” If I type “A Love Story” into the search engine on Amazon.com, not only will I see the album listed with all its tracks, but also the catalog number, with a note: “This item has been discontinued by the manufacturer.”
So I might be on questionable ethical ground, but the allure of the music was too great. I downloaded the album for a cut rate on a site allegedly legal under the laws of the Ukraine. Idiotic record executives left me no choice.
They ought to change that.