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Babyface and Brian McKnight are tender lovers on an old-school mission

Babyface and Brian McKnight are tender lovers on an old-school mission
Brian McKnight (Maury Phillips / WireImage / Getty Images)

Late last week, Babyface, the veteran R&B star, took to Steve Harvey's syndicated radio show to premiere a new solo single, "We've Got Love." A typically handsome mid-tempo number with plush keys and muscular bass, it's the lead single from an upcoming Babyface album, "Return of the Tender Lover," his first solo disc since the covers record "Playlist" in 2007.

That title, as fans know, nods to "Tender Lover," Babyface's triple-platinum 1989 album. (It's the one that spawned the classic slow jam "Whip Appeal.") But in happy news for people prone to worrying that this kind of R&B has gone out of fashion, Babyface isn't the only such romantic staging a comeback.

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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"; the album is full of his "amazing and widely praised guitar work," the statement went on.

Lyrically too McKnight and Babyface aren't looking to carve out space for new points of view á la Ocean, who's spoken publicly about being in love with a man. 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 enough approach for legacy artists eager to push throwback buttons (and reluctant to think as hard as they once did). Yet both men have done work recently that suggests they're still capable of mixing things up: Babyface in his production for Ariana Grande and his salty 2014 duets album with Toni Braxton, McKnight with "More Than Words," a great (if largely ignored) 2013 set full of funky, discursive arrangements.

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 — music about comfort and reliability — 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.

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