Late last week, veteran R&B star Babyface took to Steve Harvey’s syndicated radio show to premiere a new single, “We’ve Got Love.” A typically handsome mid-tempo number with plush keys and muscular bass, it’s the lead single from the upcoming album “Return of the Tender Lover,” Babyface’s first solo disc since “Playlist” in 2007.
That title nods to “Tender Lover,” Babyface’s 1989 triple-platinum album that spawned the classic slow jam “Whip Appeal.” And Babyface isn’t the only such romantic staging a comeback.
The day after “We’ve Got Love” appeared, Brian McKnight released “Uh Oh Feeling,” the first taste from an album he’s set to release early next year. Together the songs suggest that the much-discussed establishment of a new R&B vanguard – consisting of artists like Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and FKA Twigs – hasn’t put the old-timers out of business.
What distinguishes the old school from the new?
For starters, the veterans display little appetite here for the kind of sonic innovation that marks their successors’ digital-era work; they’re happy to burnish familiar forms using familiar tools. In a statement announcing the release of “Uh Oh Feeling,” McKnight was said to be “taking it back to basics with the new album, using all real instruments.” A statement from Babyface’s label similarly trumpeted the fact that he “plays on every track” on “Return of the Tender Lover,” and the album is full of his “amazing and widely praised guitar work.”
Lyrically, too, neither artist is looking to carve out space for new points of view. Babyface’s label calls “We’ve Got Love” a “global message of love and connectedness”; McKnight’s statement quotes him saying, “We’ve all had that uh-oh feeling,” emphasizing the universality, not the specificity, of his new song. Both tunes feel designed to be understood broadly and with little effort.
That’s a common approach for artists eager to push throwback buttons (and reluctant to think as hard as they once did). Yet both have done work recently that suggests they’re still capable of mixing things up.
What puts the two in comeback mode, then, has less to do with ability than with philosophy. They’re betting that the sound and the sentiment of this music remain valuable at a moment when fresh attitudes are capturing more attention. “We’ve Got Love” and “Uh Oh Feeling” make me think they’re right.