Album of the Week: Babyface’s Tender Lover (1989)

When you talk about 90s R&B, you might mention Mariah Carey, TLC, Boyz II Men, or Usher. What you might not know is the man behind much of that music. Enter Babyface.

The guy churned out hits: “End of the Road”, “Breathe Again”, “Roni”, “Not Gon’ Cry” are just a few. As half of LaFace, he created a label that turned into an empire, releasing the first 5 OutKast albums among other records. But I didn’t really know about Babyface’s solo music until 2017, when Frank Ocean played “Whip Appeal” on his Blonded Radio show. This amazing track led me to Tender Lover, a major revelation.

Face’s second solo album, Tender Lover is his magnum opus as a solo artist. In the same way that, 20 years later, The-Dream would create fantastic solo albums that failed to reach the commercial success of the artists he wrote and produced for (Beyoncé, Rihanna etc.), Tender Lover exists as an under-appreciated R&B gem.

The first side is good, but the second half is a knockout. The aforementioned “Whip Appeal” builds to an addictive crescendo. “Soon as I Get Home” is my favorite track. The lyrics are ridiculous and the 80s vibe is thick, it just sounds so damn good (Bobby V. did a nice version of it as well). Face has this way of making the happiest pop melodies, every instrument adds up to this maximalist, major key bliss. And he does the classic R&B trademark of singing the shit out of the background vocals in the final choruses of his songs.

I’ll never not champion Babyface. During last year’s Verzuz phenomenon, he graciously countered (the brilliant) Teddy Riley’s overblown showiness with a restrained display of talent. Hearing him talk about making music with Whitney Houston and Micheal Jackson is, to the pop fan, like listening in on a part of history. He speaks modestly and lovingly (check out his interview on Questlove Supreme if you want a great long-form podcast). And although he’s slowed down, he’s still making music: he was heavily involved in the making of Ariana Grande’s debut Yours Truly and he continues to work with his longtime musical partner Toni Braxton.

I recently purchased Tender Lover on cassette for the cheap. Unfortunately, the sound is all wobbly and wonky, it sounds like a fucked-up Screw tape. The streaming version has some cool bonus tracks, though. Besides the pretty video version of “Whip Appeal”, there is the Dub version of the title track (complete with a Bobby Brown rap) and a 7-minute “My Kinda Girl” remix.

Listen to Tender Lover here.

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