In the 1990s, rap music began to assert itself as an art form and a viable commodity. Hip-hop was a jolt to urban radio, with it sparsely-produced songs of urban frustration, self-adulation and sneakers. While this revolution of black music was occurring, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds created soft pop music, trite songs about love and loss that were played over and over. His contributions to the new jack swing sound notwithstanding, Babyface consistently fed the public predictable pabulum and they loved it. If the audience response at the half-filled National Theater last night is any indication, some of them still do.
The musician and super-producer opened with Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," a song from his latest CD, "Playlist," a album consisting mostly of covers. The song caught at least one person in the audience off-guard and the seasoned performer picked up on it right away. He jokingly chided the gentleman for having "that look" on his face during the R&B singer's cover of the rock classic and bracing himself for an evening of "new" songs.
"If you were thinking that, you were wrong," he says, and went into one of signature hits, "For the Cool in You."
The slickness inherent in many of Babyface's songs and the ones he produced for other artists was delightfully absent from the show. The band opened a few songs with extended introductions and often closed them with fantastic flourishes, like R&B bands used to do. As a former member of The Deele and a guitarist who got his nickname from '70s funk bassist Bootsy Collins, Babyface knows how to get down, even if he rarely did in the studio.
Dressed in jeans and a black sportcoat, Edmonds looked every bit the statesman of urban contemporary music. He was relaxed and confident as he bantered and teased the audience and seemed surprised by the thin crowd.
"There's a lot of room in here," he said.
He mentioned James Taylor as an influence and was reminiscent of the singer-songwriter as he sat on a stool, strumming his guitar and telling stories. The man called Babyface will turn 50 this year and had a lot to say between the hits.
After covering Taylor's "Fire and Rain," he listed every girl he loved from kindergarten to fifth grade. The short list included Ms. Potter, his fifth-grade teacher. Edmonds said if things had been different between him and his schoolboy crush, his musical direction might have changed.
"I'd be writin' me some R. Kelly shit," he says.
The singer then performed two medleys: one, a set of songs he'd written for male artists (Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men and Tevin Campbell); the other, songs he penned for ladies, (TLC, Karyn White and Toni Braxton). On the latter he was joined by Sasha Allen, a singer whose voice was up to the task covering songs made famous by R&B divas. After he finishes with Ashanti's album, his current project, Edmonds should make this young lady his next production. The medleys reinforced how ubiquitous his style was in the 90s and how much his songs sound alike.
Babyface closed with "When Can I See You Again," another love song that resonated with one concert-goer, who yelled, "Break it down!" during the acoustic rendition.
Pop newcomer George Stanfield opened the show. Stanfield offered everything a headliner wants in an opening act: a short set that was almost forgettable. Stanfield did shake up things by picking up a trumpet, but that didn't redeem his lifeless cover of James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet."
This concert was one several scheduled for the newly reopened National Theater this week. The venue is unfinished and despite its ornate trimmings, it looks that way, even in the dark. Standing in front of the stage is the best bet for a show. The upstairs seating is poorly designed and as comfortable as sitting on a warped plank.