Babyface's Def Jam debut, Return of the Tender Lover is also his first solo album of original material in a decade. After the one that preceded it, Grown & Sexy (2005), there was the covers set Playlist (2007) and the Grammy-winning Toni Braxton collaboration Love, Marriage & Divorce (2014). While this is titled in reference to his triple platinum 1989 release, there are no attempts at rewriting "It's No Crime" or "Whip Appeal." Instead, Return of the Tender Lover is inspired more by the crowd-pleasing "feel good" performance model perfected by recent tour mates like Charlie Wilson and Maze.
There was a time in the ’90s when R&B transitioned from a largely adult-oriented genre of music to something that was aimed towards a younger demographic. If I had to try to pinpoint the exact moment, I’d put the onus on the inclusion of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” on the Batman Forever soundtrack. Ever since then, it’s been a gradual descent into markedly less sophisticated material for the majority of the genre’s output.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, along with songwriting partners Daryl Simmons and L.A. Reid, developed a form of pop soul that's as geometrically precise as it is weightless. Songs like Toni Braxton’s "Breathe Again", Madonna’s "Take a Bow", and Boyz II Men’s "Water Runs Dry" occur in a seamless universe, all undisturbed surfaces that relentlessly shimmer.
1989's Tender Lover marked the moment when Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds entered the pop mainstream as a solo star after years spent playing with R&B groups and writing songs with L.A. Reid for acts like Bobby Brown. The album fused the energy of new jack swing ("It No Crime") and the cool of quiet storm ("Whip Appeal") into a new kind of groove that could work in the club or bedroom.
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ 1989 album, Tender Lover, established him as the, er, baby face of smooth-tonsilled R&B. Umpteen Grammys later, and with Edmonds now aged 56, Return of the Tender Lover goes back to the source. This is old-school R&B with a fine glass finish, the musicianship and production audibly expensive and the man’s voice so honeyed it presumably requires the attentions of worker bees.
After 2014’s underrated collaboration with Toni Braxton, “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” Babyface makes a welcome and assured return as a solo artist with his first record in eight years. One of the architects of new jack swing, Kenny Edmonds does what he does best here, staying true to the song-based, romantic R&B that influenced a generation. The singer, writer, and producer smartly realizes he can’t compete with the obsessive, bedpost-rattling Ty Dolla Signs and Weeknds of the world and instead offers a satisfying mix of adult pop-soul love songs that evoke his early work.