It’s 8:30 on a Sunday morning and Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds is curled up in an armchair in the den of his Beverly Hills mansion. He is surrounded by a fleet of Grammy trophies, an enormous jar of Hershey’s Kisses, and dozens of gold and platinum records he has written and/or produced as a Midas-touch hitmaker for everyone from TLC, Tevin Campbell, and Toni Braxton to Mariah, Madonna, and Michael. His wife, Tracey, a former model, is upstairs with their son, Brandon, now 2 months old. ”There are advantages to being a star,” says the unassuming 38-year-old. ”But I think it sucks for the most part. I’d rather have a life.”
Even Babyface admits that life is pretty great right now. But it could start to suck really soon.
With the Oct. 29 release of his own fourth album, The Day, the soft-spoken master of musical seduction known as ‘Face to many of his collaborators is poised to become the kind of star he’s famous for creating. ”I can’t think of anyone who’s produced more stuff, more incredible stuff, in the last 10 years,” says Stevie Wonder, who duets with Edmonds on The Day. Babyface may not be a household name yet, but he’s the force behind an astonishing string of hits: the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack (7 million copies sold, and the No. 1 album in the country for five weeks in early 1996), which included top 10 singles for Whitney Houston (”Exhale [Shoop Shoop]”), Mary J. Blige (”Not Gon’ Cry”), and Brandy (”Sittin’ Up in My Room”); Boyz II Men’s ”I’ll Make Love to You” and ”The End of the Road”; Madonna’s ”Take a Bow”; Toni Braxton’s ”Breathe Again,” ”Another Sad Love Song,” and recent smash ”You’re Making Me High”; Bobby Brown’s ”Every Little Step”; Houston’s ”I’m Your Baby Tonight”; and two current top 10 hits, Eric Clapton’s ”Change the World,” and ”This Is for the Lover in You,” the first single from The Day.
Though he calls himself a songwriter first, a producer second, and a singer third, Babyface’s second and third albums — 1989’s Tender Lover and 1993’s For the Cool in You — both went double platinum. Still, it is The Day that is expected to end his days as just another face in the crowd, a prospect he greets with decided ambivalence. ”If this record blows up major and people start knowing my face — well, part of me is worried,” he says. ”Because I want to go to Disneyland. I want to go to Six Flags with my son and just walk around. Right now some people know me and that’s okay. It’s not overbearing. But I know how crazy it can get once you start getting large.”
Babyface is already so large that The Day includes superstar cameos from Kenny G, Mariah Carey, and Eric Clapton. His biggest thrill, though, was landing Stevie Wonder. ”I don’t think Stevie knows what a major influence he was on me,” says Edmonds. ”It was a dream come true to sing with him.”
While Edmonds is sometimes accused of hitching the same smooth-as-silk melodies to the same lustily romantic reveries, The Day (the title song refers to the day he and Tracey learned she was pregnant with Brandon) shows signs of artistic growth. ”How Come How Long,” his collaboration with Wonder, is a song about spousal abuse inspired both by the O.J. Simpson case and Edmonds’ own experiences. ”I grew up seeing guys beating their girlfriends,” he says. ”Some have been friends, and [the impulse was] to ignore it, to act like it wasn’t happening. But you know it’s going on … ‘How Come How Long’ is about how we have to talk about it. I wrote the song in a Stevie Wonder fashion because I always felt that he was able to sing about issues and people would listen. So I thought it would be great to get Stevie to sing with me, and he said he would.”