WHEN Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds altered his gentlemanly, crisp-suit-and-ascot image on his last album, 2001's Face2Face, nobody paid much attention. He grew a 'fro and started sporting dark shades and a five o'clock shadow as if he were Lenny Kravitz or somebody. He also tampered with his musical formula. For Face2Face, the singer-songwriter-uberproducer recruited outsiders -- younger cats like Snoop Dogg and the Neptunes -- to help him "get street." Lyrically, he got a little nasty, too, letting a few expletives slip.
Uh-huh, I'm talking about Babyface. The dude who wore a well-activated S-Curl throughout the '90s and ruled pop-urban radio with soft, shamelessly sentimental ballads like "Every Time I Close My Eyes," "When Can I See You" and "Soon As I Get Home." In addition to his own hits, the Indiana native crafted smash ballads for TLC ("Red Light Special"), Boyz II Men ("End of the Road" and "I'll Make Love to You"), Toni Braxton ("Breathe Again") and just about everybody else who mattered in the '90s. With those kind of songs behind him coupled with that shy-suave-guy image, Babyface confused longtime fans with the club-friendly Face2Face, whose release date unfortunately coincided with the 9 / 11 tragedies. The album failed on the charts, selling under 500,000 copies -- far less than any other Babyface CD.
Now, at 46, the urban crooner is back and completely unfazed by his four-year-old flop. He calls the new record, which hit stores Tuesday, Grown & Sexy.
Calling from his cell phone while en route to a sound check in Connecticut, he says, "I think the new album has the classic themes and the passion with a little bit of today, a little more tempo in the ballads. It doesn't sound dated but kind of new. It's not just for the younger audience but the old fans too."
This time out, Babyface, a happily married family man with two sons, ages 8 and 4, has tempered the "edgy look." He's gone back to the neat, close-cropped, texturized do. Though not as formally styled as he was during the days of "Whip Appeal" (so long, ties and ascots), the artist has returned to a more elegant but understated look. The smooth, middle-of-the-road Babyface sound, however, is still undergoing a change. On the new disc, the production, overseen by the artist, the Underdogs and Greg Pagani, is leaner, sleeker and decidedly trend-conscious.
"There's still more of an edge toward the songs without going over the line," Babyface says. "You have to consider where the music is and where it's going as far as production these days."
On Grown & Sexy, a conventional, fairly easygoing set, he doesn't do much to push the sound forward. And for the most part, he eschews the kind of earnestly romantic lyrics that cemented his reputation more than a decade ago. Remember when Babyface sang about "giving good love" and "paying your rent"? Well, he's more direct on Grown & Sexy, informing his lady love in the first cut that "Tonight It's Goin' Down." After all these years of lyrically promising the moon, the stars and whatever else superhumanly possible, Babyface wants to "get his freak on" now. No need to worry, though. The singer never gets too raw. After all, this is the same man who wrote lines such as, "I only think of you on two occasions / That's day and night ..."
"Being grown is sexy right now," says the Los Angeles resident. "It's embracing who you are. As adults, so many of us try to fight to stay going and keep up, trying to do all the latest dances. But when you do that, it ain't sexy."
I guess that's a lesson Babyface learned on the last record.
"It was a fun experience," he says of Face2Face. "It was great to work with different producers. So I don't regret the experience."
Fair enough. Grown & Sexy doesn't feel as forced at its predecessor. But the album lacks the depth and substance of The Day, Babyface's polished, mature effort from 1996. The artist shows that he still has the lyrical and melodic magic of his heyday on "The Loneliness," a gentle highlight. And "God Must Love U" -- an organic gem with ambient, crackling vinyl noise -- feels out of place on a record so preoccupied with asserting sexiness over slick, programmed grooves.
"Even as older folks, we hear music differently," Babyface says. "You have to flip it a little bit, make it more about what's happening today. Today, people who are in their 30s and 40s act much younger than folks in their 30s and 40s did 20 years ago. ... Your life can begin in your 30s or your 40s."
As Grown & Sexy proves, midlife explorations can be a bit surprising and, sometimes, a little boring.