On 'Girls Night Out,' Babyface collaborates with a new generation of women artists In the 1990's few producers matched Babyface's success. From Whitney Houston to TLC to Boyz II Men, his touch led to massive hits. NPR's A Martinez talks to him about his new album.

On 'Girls Night Out,' Babyface collaborates with a new generation of women artists

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Few people shaped the music of the 1990s quite like Babyface. As a writer, producer and musician, his influence was everywhere. And if you're in your 20s, it's entirely possible that you were made with a Babyface song playing in the background.


BOYZ II MEN: (Singing) I'll make love to you like you want me to.


MADONNA: (Singing) I've always been in love with you.


TLC: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby.


MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) Come back, baby, please, 'cause we...


WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) I'm your baby tonight.

MARTINEZ: That's Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, TLC, Madonna and Boyz II Men - a tiny sampling of Babyface hits. Now he's back with a new album of collaborations with up-and-coming women. It's called "Girls Night Out."


BABYFACE AND ELLA MAI: (Singing) I keeps on falling in love, oh, yeah. Keeps on falling in love. I keeps on falling in love.

MARTINEZ: That is the voice of Ella Mai - a song called "Keeps On Fallin'." Babyface says he and his collaborators found inspiration on a tight deadline.

BABYFACE: We had one day to write the song and record it, so it was all in that same time period. So we had a day to get to know each other, talk about life and talk about what you want to sing about, what's going on in your life, what's something that we could write about. And then we figure that out in a couple hours, and then we start writing, and then try to record the song.

MARTINEZ: That sounds like a lot of pressure - one day.

BABYFACE: Ultimately, I guess in a sense it was. It wasn't stated that we only got a day. It was just kind of like, let's get in. And then we kind of just created there on the spot. I wanted to make sure that I was not staying in the same time period where my writing would be. I wanted to also learn from them as well as being able to grow myself in terms of how they flow, the melodies, the lyrics, how they are different today than they were when I was just writing myself. So the whole process was definitely a collaboration, and it was kind of mixing old world with new world, so to say.

MARTINEZ: But musically, though, I mean, you didn't want to age it. So is that something that you were worried about, like that maybe somehow it would sound, like, from a different era when you're working with younger talent?

BABYFACE: A lot of the artists came in - they were a little worried about that. They definitely wanted to work, but I think they were also a little surprised that it wasn't older-sounding. Even when I sung on the records, I made sure that I wasn't sounding as '90s.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter) Nothing wrong with the '90s, Babyface - nothing wrong with the '90s.

BABYFACE: The '90s is great in the '90s. But don't put the '90s in today.


BABYFACE AND BABY TATE: (Rapping) Baby, you better not let me see you when I roll over my pillow. You better not try to be here in the morning - I got [expletive] to do. Better not keep on trying to get to know me like a interview. Better off finding you somebody else - there ain't no me and you. Tell your mama I don't want to meet her.

MARTINEZ: Were any of the artists, though, deferential to you at first maybe, considering your resume?

BABYFACE: Well, they were - most of them were nervous. And we had to work through that to get past the whole - I'm always like, why are you nervous? I'm just a regular-ass dude. And...

MARTINEZ: You know that's not true, right? You know why they're nervous.

BABYFACE: Well, but I - you get outside the music, I'm regular as hell, so. And we just got to get past that point - so where we can kind of, like, talk and have fun, and then you can relax and really get to it. Because if you're doing it on a whole basis of like, oh, no, I don't know if I can say this. I don't know if I can say I don't like something. It's a whole thing. I said, if you don't like something, then I'm fine with it. I have absolutely no ego. You know, if it sucks, it sucks. And I write sucky things all the time. So let's just kind of get through it because that's the only way you can kind of get it done.

MARTINEZ: So on a song like "Seamless," the one you did with Kehlani, how did you go about it with her on that one?

BABYFACE: We were initially going for kind of a love song, like a wedding song. And we started working with it, and as we were doing it, man, she was like, oh, no, this is corny as hell. Let's get out of this. And then we had a whole different kind of feel.


BABYFACE AND KEHLANI: (Singing) I was trying to make it work, trying to make this house a home. Act like I'm anybody, girl - I ain't everybody, girl. You don't know my body - how come I'm a body? We supposed to be seamless, but you love showing off weakness. Getting all mad for no reason. Turning up on me for breathing. Supposed to be seamless.

MARTINEZ: You know, in the past you worked with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige. I mean, do you notice a change in how women are treated in the industry? Because, you know, the music business has, in a lot of ways, excluded women from key roles for a very, very long time. Is that changing, you think?

BABYFACE: Well, I think that there's far more independence, there's far more confidence in who they are and what they want to say and how they want to say it. Whereas before you were just the producer, and they'd come in, and they'd just say, OK, what do you want me to do? It's a far different world today as it relates to these young girls. It's a welcome independence that I like, you know. It helps guide you a little bit more in terms of what to actually say and how to say it.

MARTINEZ: There was a time when it seemed like you were associated with just about every big pop record there was. And it was wild to me that it seemed like everybody wanted to have the Babyface sound. How did you manage that? Did you ever just get burned out and say that, like, there's no more juice left to squeeze in this musical brain of mine?

BABYFACE: I don't know that I ever thought of it that way. I just kind of, like, was - I missed out on a lot of that. I didn't pay attention to it so much. I woke up one day and, like, wow, I did all that?

MARTINEZ: It really just creeped up on you, like, oh, my gosh, like, this is what I did?

BABYFACE: For the longest time, I didn't even know that "Whip Appeal" was a pop record. I thought it was just R&B. I think was about a couple months ago I saw that, oh, it was Top 10.

MARTINEZ: Wait, a couple of months ago.

BABYFACE: Yeah, I wasn't even thinking it. I was always surprised when I would perform. I'd see there's a lot more white people in that crowd, and I'm seeing them sing "Whip Appeal." I'm like, how do y'all know this?


BABYFACE: (Singing) And no one but you has that kind of whip appeal on me.

MARTINEZ: So one of the great things I love about this album, "Girls Night Out," is that there's something for someone that's 20, and there's something for someone like me who's now above 50.

BABYFACE: Yeah, I think that ultimately this whole project was really about me presenting the new girls, the young girls that I think are great and I think have flavor and I think will be important in the future. It's a showcase that shines on these artists and their artistry, and I'm putting my artistry with them to help make that statement.


BABYFACE AND QUEEN NAIJA: (Singing) What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?

MARTINEZ: That's 12-time Grammy winner Babyface. His new album is called "Girls Night Out." Babyface, thanks a lot.

BABYFACE: Thank you - appreciate it.


BABYFACE AND QUEEN NAIJA: (Singing) I don't want to leave - I don't want to leave. But I got to go - but I got to go. This is not for me. Yeah, you had a good run, had your fun, now...

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