By the time the new millennium had officially arrived? Kenneth Babyface Edmunds found himself in a position of becoming nearly a total musical cliche’. His high,soft voice matched with coaxing lyrical insinuation and an instrumental preference for very soft adult contemporary pop ballads-quite often oriented around the acoustic guitar, gave the impression of an artist barely capable of expressing either yearning sexuality or vitality of character. Inwardly the man had a very different side however. So ‘Face rounded on than new producer Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes to showcase another side of his musical talent that,even from his days as a member of the 80’s boy band The Deele,had been rather subdued. This is showcased most heavily on the song “Stressed Out” from the 2000 album Face2Face.
After a whispered declaration of “make your dreams come true” from Babyface,a keyboard/guitar oriented melodic solo kicks in with a pulsing choir sound. This melody,backed up by a marching beat,comes to a refrain of these phrase that features a straight up funky…well either it’s a guitar or a synthesizer simulating one. Due to the technological progression of the time it’s hard to tell. This stop/start funkiness is basically the instrumental bed for Babyface’s vocals on this songs-which he delivers in both straight ahead and more dragging vocal drawls that accompany the harmonic flow of the song. Toward the end of the final refrain,there is a beautifully written Stevie Wonder-like chord progression before the last verse of the song.
This song is also a case where I feel it’s important to focus on the lyrical content of the song,and how Babyface’s vocals present them. As mentioned earlier, Babyface presented himself as a man who was willing to sacrifice his own confidence to secure a given romantic association. On this particular song? Not only is physical sex more then a little implied, but Babyface is telling the lady in his life (unsure if this was written with Tracy Edmunds in mind or not) that her own fears of intimacy and distant attitude can only really be successfully alleviated if she merely relaxes (as he tells her not to “stress out”) and simply allows herself to feel some sense of joy and life in the experience. So here,Babyface is a romantically uplifting and encouraging force rather than a merely submissive one.
Musically speaking this song is not merely about Babyface changing his own approach to his craft,but also part of the ever evolving sound of Pharrel’s production as part of The Neptunes. With the success of similar minded songs to this,in particular Nelly’s famous “Hot In Here”? The sound that The Neptunes were developing during the early aughts were to become the popular R&B/dance sound of that era-spawning a number of very half baked imitations of their sound in what became known as “contemporary R&B”. This was a very similar chain of events that occurred with Teddy Riley’s innovation of new jack swing over a decade before this. But on this song and others from the source of The Neptunes? The sound had a strong,uptempo groove travelling on a vital musical road. A road right into the rhythmic nucleus of funk. And for Babyface that was just what the metaphorical Dr.Funkenstein ordered!