My journey into—and my love for—90s R&B began when I was in Grade 7 with The Bodyguard soundtrack. Even though Whitney’s transcending voice and that monumental song were ubiquitous, I was hungry for more. Having only been exposed to Bollywood songs and Hindu bhajans at the time, R&B offered me a smooth transition into Western music. I responded to how effortlessly R&B singers were able to hit every heart-infused note into short bursts and spans, not unlike the Hindi and Sanskrit prayers I heard (and sang) at the religious centre I attended. As I look up at the album covers I still have displayed on my wall, including En Vogue’s Lies and Mary J. Blige’s My Life, I wonder how much of what drew me to R&B was that the artists are people of colour. Though black culture is clearly distinct from Indian culture, for a brown boy growing up in white Alberta, R&B artists provided a form of visibility that I couldn’t find anywhere else in a Western context. I could connect to black skin, the soulfulness of tone and delivery, and the vibrant clothing and style far more than I could relate to layers of flannel and howling over crunchy guitars.
I was an avid fan of almost every R&B artist and group of that era. Remember Changing Faces? Loved them. Y?N-Vee? Had their tape. As a budding singer and musician building what would become the foundations for my own sound and artistry, I studied these artists intensely, borrowing their cassettes from the Edmonton Public Library. I craved Mariah’s ear-defying range (who didn’t?), mimicked SWV’s vocal licks, practiced Zhané’s harmonies with my younger brother, memorized every single line of Salt-n-Pepa’s Very Necessary, mastered TLC’s moves from the “Creep” and “Waterfalls” videos (and signed every friend note with “CrazySexyCool forever”), and devoured the liner notes of Brandy’s first record. But there was one artist I dreamed of working with, one artist I imagined my first record being produced by: Babyface.
Babyface was one of the first artists I was exposed to who could do everything. He is a writer, a producer and a performer. But what I was most compelled by were Babyface’s songs—songs he wrote and/or produced. His songs are dense with melody and sincerity. Void of contemporary irony and over-production, they are all heart, even sonically, right from the beginning, right from the first bars of “Breathe Again” or “Take a Bow.” There is truly no song like a Babyface song.
The idea to record a tribute project to Babyface, featuring songs either (co-)written and/or (co-)produced by Babyface, struck me in 2011, when I was in the midst of a gut-wrenching breakup, not surprisingly. No lyric hit me harder during that difficult time than:
Still I can’t let you go / It’s unnatural / You belong to me / I belong to you (from Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” co-written by Babyface). I knew then that I wanted the project to be called Breathe Again, not just because it is one of my favourite Babyface songs, but also because his songs, as heartbreaking as they can be, offer the promise of resilience—because through his songs, I know I’m not alone, that someone on the radio understands the timbre of my pain. As always, Babyface says it best himself in a song he co-wrote and co-produced for Toni Braxton:
It’s just another sad love song
Rackin’ my brain like crazy
Guess I’m all torn up
Be it fast or slow
It doesn’t let go
Or shake me
And it’s all because of you
Attempting to pay tribute to one of my favourite artists, in the same medium, is an overwhelming, daunting and sometimes even defeating task. My approach was often minimalistic—to work within my limitations to do my best to highlight the beauty of his lyrics and melody.
While Babyface’s work and genius cannot be duplicated, this project is my small gesture of gratitude, not just to Babyface but to the artists, most of whom are black, whose songs are covered on this record—Brandy, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, Tevin Campbell, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, TLC & Madonna—and also R&B music, for shaping me and my voice into who I am today.
Thank you and so much love,