ANYONE WHO HAS SLOW DANCED to such hopelessly romantic Valentines as Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" or Toni Braxton's "Breathe Again" might expect Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who wrote and produced both hits, to come across cool and impeccably smooth. But this January morning, en route from a gig in Detroit to another in Cleveland, he feels like having fun. Loafing in the kitchenette of his plush tour bus, he's trying out yet another insult joke on his tour crew. "Your mother is so stupid," he says, "she thinks Armani is something you get from the bank."
Maybe he should stick to music. After all, Babyface, 36, who was nicknamed by guitarist Bootsy Collins, is at the top of his hit-making game. The list of artists for whom he has written or produced since his breakout success with the Whispers' 1987 "Rock Steady" reads like Billboard's Top 10 in any given week and includes Whitney Houston, TLC, Bobby Brown, Mariah Carey
—and himself. "He's a laid-back man of few words," says Vanessa Williams
, for whose new album, The Sweetest Days, Babyface wrote and produced two songs. "And he's a master of melody. That's why his songs are so easy to sing along to."
Cranking out those sweet melodies sure beats the grind of his recent 27-city sold-out U.S. tour. One sorry night in Detroit an equipment truck broke down in the snow, causing a 4-hour delay before the singer's Vegas-style show, which features four ultratoned female dancers and a seven-piece band, got started. "That was a rough night," Babyface says of the unplanned midnight performance. "But touring is hard work. I'd rather be at home in the studio writing. It's an easier life."
And it keeps getting better. At last month's American Music Awards, after duetting with Madonna
in "Take a Bow"—the current Top 5 ballad the two wrote, produced and sing together on Madonna
's latest album, Bedtime Stories—Babyface was presented with his first AMA for favorite male R&B artist. Come March 1 he may need to dust off more shelf space: He's got five Grammy nominations, including one for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "When Can I See You," last year's stripped-down, acoustic-flavored hit.
Curiously, when he was growing up in Indianapolis, Babyface wasn't encouraged to be sentimental. He is the fifth of six sons of Marvin Edmonds, who died of lung cancer when Kenny was in eighth grade, and his wife, Barbara, a process manager for a pharmaceutical plant. "We weren't a touchy family, saying, 'I love you,' " he says. "I'm still not a real 'Give me a hug' kind of person." Still, complete stoicism wasn't his style either. "I was in first grade when I wrote my first love letter," he says.
Five years later, inspired by Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five, he picked up the guitar and began setting his amorous entreaties to music. No one heard them until his late teens when he began playing with local funk and Top 40 bands such as Manchild and the Crowd Pleasers. In 1981 he met Antonio "L.A." Reid at an Indianapolis club where Reid was performing with his band, the Deele. They crossed paths again several years later in a Cincinnati recording studio and Babyface was asked to join the group.
In 1987, Babyface and Reid struck out on their own, scoring early successes with songs they wrote for Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul
and Babyface himself, whose second solo album, 1989's Tender Lover, went double platinum. That same year, backed by Arista Records, the two founded LaFace Records, the Atlanta-based label that launched TLC and Toni Braxton. Four years later, L.A. and Babyface stopped making music—but not profiits—together. Although they continue to run LaFace as a team, says Babyface, "we have defined our relationship. He's an executive, so he deals with the ins and outs of the company. I deal with the creative." Says L.A.: "It was a natural evolution that things would change. At the end of the day, he's probably one of the most important songwriters of all time."
Most of those days Babyface spends at home in the luxurious Beverly Hills spread he shares with wife Tracey, 28, who runs Yab Yum Entertainment, a record label and publishing company underwritten by Sony. The two met in 1991—his 3 ½-year marriage to first wife Denise ended in divorce in the early '80s—when Tracey auditioned for a part in one of his videos. ("She didn't get it because she caught the chicken pox," he says.) After running into each other a few months later, they began dating and married in 1992. The relationship, says Babyface, has had a calming effect on him. Even the carping of critics who call his music "homogenized" doesn't faze him. "I'm more stable, more confident and more satisfied," he says. "It's a cool thing to know you have somebody who's there for you and you're there for them."
Now that he's through with the hassle of being on the road, Babyface can focus on activities he loves most: shopping, skiing and, of course, coming up with more hits. "I'm not like the regular artist who needs that attention, getting onstage," he says. "They need to feel the people. That's not important to me. I feel the people when they buy the records."
JEREMY HELLIGAR in Detroit and Cleveland