It was recently announced that ’80s and ’90s hitmaker Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and frequent collaborator Toni Braxton (star of the reality show Braxton Family Values and the recent Lifetime original movie Twist of Faith) have reunited to record a new duets album together, set for release this fall on Motown Records. Braxton, who fake-retired from recording music and announced her desire to play a lesbian in a movie earlier this year, has sold over 60 million albums worldwide, while Babyface has, according to Billboard, written or produced over 125 Top 10 R&B and pop hits, including 16 #1 pop songs. During a Wikipedia binge on all things late-20th-century R&B and new jack swing, we decided to take a look back at Babyface’s impressive list of hits and pick our 15 favorites, including two Braxton singles and one by the ’Face himself.
15. After 7, “Heat of the Moment.” Babyface had every reason to give some of his A-grade material to After 7. After all, two of its members were his own brothers. Their big hit was the stately “Can’t Stop,” but in retrospect the bouncy “Heat of the Moment” sounds a lot more like what today’s retro hunters want when they seek out new jack swing: spare, hollow synth hits, aggressive drum patterns, and, perhaps most of all, dudes who aren’t afraid to beg “Please, baby, let me ex-plain,” and then proceed to do so in full-out tenor. Eric Henderson
14. The Whispers, “Rock Steady.” The title may as well be referring to the Whispers themselves, an L.A.-based R&B group who started their career with faux-Philly soul in the early ’70s, jumped aboard the disco express just in time to score a few of boogie’s greatest moments (“And the Beat Goes On,” “It’s a Love Thing”), and, well into middle age, staged a remarkable, trend-bucking comeback with Babyface. Common sense says they should’ve ended up looking like this. The R&B history books will list them among the spiritual godfathers of new jack swing. Henderson
13. Boyz II Men, “End of the Road.” In his quasi-Kurt Cobain biopic Last Days, Gus Van Sant positioned Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” as the piss take of the sort of mid-’90s schmaltz that truly took off with the group’s 1992 single “End of the Road,” then the longest running pop hit ever. The silly spoken bridge prevents the song from aging as well as some of Babyface’s other hits, but his timeless hook and the boyz’ cooleyhighharmonies created a template that countless R&B and pop artists would emulate for nearly a decade. Sal Cinquemani
12. En Vogue, “Whatever.” By the time Babyface teamed up with multiplatinum girl group En Vogue, then down one member after Dawn Robinson’s departure, hip-hop had begun to overtake R&B and electronica was on the verge of becoming the next big (brief) thing. The result was a surprisingly understated, trip-hop-inflected midtempo number more reminiscent of the sleek title track from the group’s 1993 EP Runway Love than their smash swan song with Robinson, “Don’t Let Go (Love).” Cinquemani
11. Pebbles, “Girlfriend.” If Babyface crowned Bobby Brown and Toni Braxton as his king and queen, then Pebbles, for at least a few brief years before her misguided sojourn into backstage management, was his Disney princess. Albeit, a jaded, boy-weary incarnation who just wants to let Ariel and Belle know their main things ain’t all that. Not one, not two, but at least three of her tracks stand among Babyface’s most urgent, paranoid anti-love bangers. The beautifully skeptical “Giving You the Benefit” puts Pebbles in the drivers’ seat, but she’s truly on her home turf with “Backyard” and the enduring underdog “Girlfriend,” in which her tough love is matched by tougher synthesizer hits. Henderson