1989’s Tender Lover marked the moment when Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds entered the pop mainstream as a solo star after years spent playing with R&B groups and writing songs with L.A. Reid for acts like Bobby Brown. The album fused the energy of new jack swing (“It No Crime”) and the cool of quiet storm (“Whip Appeal”) into a new kind of groove that could work in the club or bedroom. Twenty-six years later, on his first solo album of original material since 2005’s Grown & Sexy, Babyface is dreaming of the old days again.
After the high-energy opener “We’ve Got Love,” Return of the Tender Loverrelaxes into a well-worn groove. Fellow R&B throwbacks El DeBarge (“Walking On Air”) and After 7 (“I Want You”) give the album a spark that flirts with gospel. After that, though the album’s back half falls into starry-eyed ballads that are a perfect match for the just-got-home-from-work domesticity of the original Tender Lover.
Nostalgia isn’t all Babyface has going for him – he continues to be a sought-after songwriter who’s worked with contemporary stars like Ariana Grande, and he memorably offered a country guitar riff for the lovably crass singer Ty Dolla $ign’s recent debut LP. A little more stylistic deviation like that could have helped Return of the Tender Lover feel more vital. Even when he’s just dreaming of the past, though, the elegance of Babyface’s songwriting remains untouched. When he sings “There are days I’m so mystified that you have chosen me/That I thank god that you’ve chosen me” on “Exceptional,” it’s a sentiment that would ring true no matter the decade.