Teddy Riley vs. Babyface

On April 20, there was a botched online DJ-style battle between Teddy Riley and Babyface, part of the evolving Verzuz beat battle series, with each hoping to assert the heft and grooviness of their respective discographies. As the story goes, Babyface did little more than hit play and effortlessly dispatched Mr. Riley, who did too both way too much and not nearly enough, succumbing to logistical and technical difficulties.

This is all hearsay–I don’t have the patience to go back and review video footage or biased recountings of what seems to have been not easy to watch when it happened the first time. I only bring it up as a pretext to delve into the fray myself–not the live battle itself, but the conversation about the musical legacies each legend was hoping to defend. These two guys overlap with the sweet spot of my pop music awareness, when I was old enough to absorb and critique music with some discernment, but no so old that life got in the way of enjoying music as a major pursuit.

In other words, these guys and I go way back.

I have a natural tendency to be team Teddy. I thrive in the world of groove and funk and dance. I bought Guy’s debut album as a cassette (yes, a cassette) and then their follow-up The Future as one of the first CDs in my collection. I played both records extensively (in between jamming Janet and Troop) and marveled at the deep grooves and the sparkling synths. I tolerated Aaron Hall’s gospel histrionics and found them to be a good stylistic foil to Teddy’s too-cool electronic modernism.

Then, when Teddy branched out and worked with Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, I was totally on board. MJ’s Dangerous is a much-overlooked masterpiece, and Teddy’s work on the first half of the record is stunning. Stunning. Even though it’s clear to a Janet superfan like me that MJ cornered Teddy in the studio and made him promise to copy the template of Rhythm Nation but up the technical wow factor, it’s the best damn ripoff anyone’s ever attempted.

Then for his final lap in the limelight, Teddy headed up Blackstreet and churned out another few classics, most notably the chart bomb and best groove of all time, “No Diggity.” On the basis of that song alone, Teddy deserves to be in any music hall of fame that has every existed.

Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of his creative output. There’s much more–some I don’t even remember, and some I probably never knew. For instance, when he was about 16 or 17, Teddy helped produce the rap classic record “The Show” for Doug E. Fresh. Teddy virtually created New Jack Swing, the dominant sound of R&B for half of a decade, and a clear precursor to the Bad Boy sound that dominated even more resoundingly in the 90s. As if that weren’t enough, he profoundly influenced his fellow Virginian Timbaland and mentored a young Rodney Jerkins, who have since become equally formidable pop culture forces.

Teddy Riley may be the fodder for some memes over the past week, but he’s no joke.

People of my age are legally required to be Babyface fans. I looked up the federal statute. That universality aside, I do consider myself a free-willed supporter of his creative output. I loved, loved, loved some of the gems he wrote and/or produced and/or performed: “My Kinda Girl,” “End of the Road,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Take a Bow” [Madonna not Rihanna], “Giving You the Benefit”, “Most Girls” [an early P!nk hit], “Ready or Not,” and OK, I’m getting exhausted. It is impossible to overstate the pervasiveness of his presence in pop and R&B music between 1988 and 2000. If they wrote a definitive book on how to write songs, he’d be the subject of two chapters and the author of the preface.

‘Face’s production tropes (with longtime partner L.A. Reid) are also notable and influential. My only issue with the LA & Babyface sound as it existed during their heyday as producers is that it’s the tiniest bit derivative. They were never explicitly focused on being innovators, and it shows in their music. The ballads are often tasteful and restrained, with no production personality. They’re about the music. (Think “Love Makes Things Happen,” a gorgeous cut Babyface duetted on with Pebbles.) The more production-centric cuts seemed to mix the New Jack-esque swing beats (courtesy of you-know-who) with the high-gloss production flourishes of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The only sound innovation that I credit Babyface with is the opera-style background vocals which crop up as a dynamic contrast on songs like “Dontcha Think” and “Most Girls.” No one else mastered the inherent melodrama of sparkly 90s pop and vaguely classical window dressing.

How do you compare these two? Well, you don’t, not really. That’s what makes it fun. If you actually pitted one apple against another, one apple would get its feelings hurt because it was clearly less flavorful and crisp than the other. When you pit an apple against an orange, everyone just ends up having fun with their confirmation biases and everyone goes home feeling superior.

Telling me I, as a fan, have to pick between Kenneth and Theodore is like asking me to pick between melody and rhythm, almost literally. Not gonna do it.

As a music critic, I reluctantly award my gold star to Teddy. I wouldn’t want a world without Babyface, but Teddy has served as a sound innovator and has influenced other sound innovators. It’s not lost on me that Teddy is a clumsy singer and songwriter when compared to Babyface, but his talent with crafting sound is (perhaps–I’m not sure?) more rare.