By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Yab Yum/550 Music
BABYFACE IS THE most influential force in commercial soul music since Berry Gordy because he loves women--and the female part of himself--so completely that it permeates every flawless melody and tenderly passionate lyric he writes, sings, and produces. Not surprisingly, his legion of imitators can be reliably judged by their adherence to a similar standard.
Jon B, whose '95 debut was the first CD released on Babyface's subsidiary label Yab Yum, ranks with Tony Rich as 'Face's foremost disciple, which goes a long way toward explaining how this effeminate white guy can make such an intriguing, soulfully sexy CD like Cool Relax. Jon knows that seduction is a passive, patient art, that adventurous fantasies require reassurances and a safe terrain. When he sings the chorus of "Bad Girl"--"You can be the bad girl/You can be my bad girl baby"--it's a mewling suggestion that doesn't even cajole, much less command. But the guitar-keyboard riff at the heart of the tune is snipped off at both ends, and repetitiously bumped into a gently insistent groove, creating an undercurrent of ardor and impatience. "They Don't Know" is a classic 'us against the world' love song that Jon embraces with such wide-hearted certainty it sounds brand new. It doesn't hurt that it's helped along by the acoustic guitar riffs and lapping rhythm that are Babyface staples. "Are U Still Down" lovingly consoles a woman ambivalent about surrendering her virginity to Jon, with no less than a tender Tupac helping out as guest rapper.
That's who we believe Jon B (and, of course, Babyface) to be: the kind of lover a woman can have a conversation with while the cum dries on the sheets. Done right, it's not really an easy or particularly tame persona. On "I Ain't Going Out," Jon is a 'whipped dude, who sounds as lasciviously giddy as Prince did on "Head," when he explained to the guys why he wasn't gonna being hangin' out that night. And such joyful solicitude makes "Can't Help It," a tune about jealousy and sexual obsession, that much more resonant and scary. The one time Jon plays it macho, on the interlude "Let's Go," he's a laughable mack daddy. Otherwise he has a clear, unified sense of who he is, and so do we: He's Babyface Junior.
By contrast, 18-year-old Usher puts on Babyface like a layer of makeup. His first two CDs, including the new My Way, may be on the LaFace label, but his mentors are mainly Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jermaine Dupri, and the lesser half of the La Face partnership, L.A. Reid. The album-jacket photos show him either in leather and aviator specs or standing shirtless in his Calvin Klein boxers, looking like a Roots extra who just wandered into the urban jungle. He wants Babyface's Midas touch without the emotional depth and sacrifice necessary to make it pay off. On the lead single, "You Make Me Wanna..." (produced by Dupri), Usher has the acoustic guitar backdrop and the urgent compassion down pat, then squanders it with the dismissive line, "I never meant to hurt her, but I gotta let her go."
He'll trade barbs with the raunchy L'il Kim on "Just Like Me," detail how many ways he wants to "freak" his girl (all of them predictable) on "Nice and Slow," and then toss in a remake of one of Babyface's first hit tunes, Midnight Star's "Slow Jam" from 1983, with Babyface himself at the controls and Monica on guest vocals. "Slow Jam" starts to set a delectably sensitive mood that must have scared the shit out of Usher, because he promptly starts hollering "Yo! Yo! Yo!" on the next song, the title track, which features the telling lyric, "I do what I want to do/My way!" So be it. No doubt My Way wants to have it both ways--or many ways--for that cross-crossover market. But it just sounds like the work of a talented kid--aggressively confused with a lot to learn.