I’ve probably heard The Supremes’ “Baby Love” a million times. It’s a classic boppy, feel-good Motown tune. It makes me think of my Aunt Mary.
Youtube’s algorithms decided I should watch Nicole Scherzinger’s “Baby Love” after I had finished watching Fergie’s “Glamorous.”¹ I hadn’t heard it before so I gave it a whirl.
The Supremes’ “Baby Love” was the 5th of 6 singles from “Where Did Our Love Go?” (Preceded by the titular song, and followed by “Come See About Me”). I'm not usually interested in getting too deep into chart numbers, but this album has some crazy stats, and younger readers might not realize how huge it was:
It was the first album in Billboard’s short history to have 3 #1 hits, and became the highest charting album from an all-female group at the time. It spent 4 weeks at #2 [denied the top spot by “Beatles ‘65”], and 89 weeks total on the hot 100. Within 10 months of their first #1 single, they became the first American group to have 5 consecutive #1 singles. This was the album that broke “The Motown Sound” nationally.
The Supremes (like many groups from this period) have cycled through many members over time, but the trio here is their longest-standing [1962-67], most commercially successful, and best known: Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson.
This song was written and produced by Motown’s in-house writing team Holland–Dozier–Holland, and the backing track is performed by The Funk Brothers. Again, to the reader unfamiliar with these names: these cats wrote and played on literally hundreds of hits.²
This song’s structure doesn’t really align with modern pop song forms, so this is going to look kinda weird:
Aside from a brief, production-focused intro and a quick vamp towards the middle to set up the modulation, this song is comprised of several repetitions of the same musical material. In the score below, I’ve labeled 3 parts of this repeated material as the “Hook”, the “Verse”, and the “Turnaround”:
The opening 4 bars (the “Hook”) function like a modern chorus. This is the part of the song which most people will remember specifically and are most likely to sing along with. Each time it returns, it is delivered in roughly the same way, although during the last two repeats, the lyrics are different.
Following this, what I’ve labeled as the “Verse” is 3 repetitions of [Dm > C], with longer melodic lines, which fill out the lyrical narrative. Finally, the “Turnaround” is 2 bars of a descending chord progression designed to lead us smoothly back to the Tonic. Rinse and repeat.
The only departures from this structure are the 3rd time around, where we get the chorus with a bonus Barri Sax line in the left channel, followed by a horn soli through the rest of the verse; and the 2 bar break after the following round to settle into the modulation.
Production and arrangement hallmarks of “The Motown Sound” come through loud and clear: Overdriven stomps and claps, hard-panned piano and vibraphone up top, a driving, snare-focused drum beat, and snappy live horns — all bathed in that iconic Motown Chamber reverb.³
Despite having a cherry upbeat sound, this song is actually the narrator’s plea for reconciliation after being inexplicably abandoned by their first-and-only lover. Our narrator wonders, “what did I do wrong to make you stay away so long?” and pleads with passionate insistency, “Need to hold you once again, my love, feel your warm embrace, my love.”
Among its stylistic contemporaries, Baby love is on the smoother side; though targeted to the teenager demographic, “Baby Love” isn’t on the teenage rebellion tip. It is concerned exclusively with matters of the heart. And, having avoided the use of contemporary slang and overtly teenagery vocal affectations, has aged gracefully.
then 20-year-old Diana Ross delivers the lead in a light, pure-toned coo with relaxed dips, slides, and vibrato. Ballard and Wilson provide key doubling on the chorus hooks, and come further up towards the end, singing subtle answering phrases like “Don’t throw our love away.”
In order to really do this song justice, I’m going to have to spend a minute getting into the weeds here. This song comes from a time when most professional songwriters had Jazz chops and weren’t afraid to flex them.
The hooky chorus melody is a resolving 6. Within the first chord change we’ve hit an altered chord, and the third is a V7 (+ melodic b9) of ii. The “Verse” sections hover around D minor, and the turnaround is smoothly executed, with the top voice holding a C before kicking up to a D during the classic (and classy) [ iim7 > V > I ].
This song is really well put together, and its juicy harmonic writing allows for all sorts of interesting horn lines and vocal flexibility. In particular, that melodic b9 in the A7 measure is the sort of romantic touch which pops up on the present Top 10 only once in a blue moon,⁴ and is executed so smoothly that basically everyone sings along to it with without any trouble.
Nicole Scherzinger is a true Entertainment Industry Journeywoman. She’s had a fascinating career⁵ spanning just about every performance medium under the sun. She might not be a household name for Americans (who might best recognize her as the lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls), but her solo releases do quite well in Europe, including 3 #1s in the UK.
Recently, she’s been holding it down as a judge on the American and UK versions of The X Factor (where both she and Simon Cowell have claimed credit for assembling One Direction).
“Baby Love” was the 2nd of 4 singles from a planned 2007 debut album titled “Her Name Is Nicole”, which was eventually shelved.⁶ Even so, “Baby Love” still hit the top 20 in the UK, Ireland, and Switzerland. It was co-written by Scherzinger, Keith Harris, and Kara DioGuardi, and produced by will.i.am (who also has a rap feature).
This song opens with a classic “orchestra tuning up” sample, indicating it was probably supposed to be the opening track on the album (it’s edited out of the music video version). Strings holding a high Ab [the key of the song] fade in, before everything is — a little surprisingly — timestretched. The song is ends with this effect as well.⁷
The intro is an instrumental chorus; the first 4 bars are primarily acoustic guitar and rhodes, then a classic 808 kick and snare drop in for the back half. Floating overhead are two guitar leads: a buttery single coil which plays a Bakersfield lick in the verse and the Bond-ish descending line in the chorus; and a reverby ebow/feedback lead played with a slide, which is present through the choruses.
This is the instrumentation which remains through the whole song (there’s also a bass which enters later). The acoustic guitar does most of the heavy lifting, playing mostly in punchy top-string chords. This guitar + 808 combo gives this tune its very mid-2000s feel [see also: Irreplaceable and Toxic].
The drum part is anchored by short, sharp high hats on every 8th note (which would likely be re-arranged into a more complex trap sequence if this song was produced today), and includes some nice touches, like the cowbell on 4&, and the tom fills every 4 bars (most easily heard in the first half of the bridge).
Harmonically, this song is pretty straightforward with a few notable exceptions: The last bar of the chorus’ chord progression [Ab > Eb > Bb > Db, Ab > Eb > Bb > Db > Db°7] is a sexy Db°7, which functions as a pivot chord to get us to the Fm/Ab which begins the verse [ Fm/Ab > Cm > Bb ].
Opening a verse on a first inversion chord is an unusual choice, and likely comes from the songwriters’ backgrounds in the Gospel & R&B world, which is much more open to altered chords and inversions than pop (outside the bridge, that is).
The prechorus also has some interesting harmonic things going on; and the second time around, an additional upper harmony is added to the vocal stack, resulting in a kind of musical theater feel:
Thematically, this song is a very straightforward love song. From the first kiss, our narrator knew this “boy” was “special”. Even though they’ve been “holding it down” for “a minute,” this feeling of love (reciprocated, from the prechorus “we”) is still as present as ever. Our narrator wants the boy to know that he’s “every- every- everything that [she] could ever dream of.” This type of text can be challenging to pull off, and its effectiveness normally hinges on the melodic setting and vocal delivery choices.
While this song does have some hooky vocal touches (for example the backup vocals’ echoed “Oooh Boy” in the chorus), during the final 2 minutes it veers into a level of melodic and lyrical repetition which can result in a listener mentally checking out. The bridge uses the chorus’ chord progression, which contributes to the loopy feeling of these last 2 minutes.
The static drum part and aggressive mastering also hamstring the song’s ability to deliver adequate variety during the bridge (which features a brief — and, frankly, bland — will.i.am verse). Nicole has some nice floating adlibs in the final chorus, but they’re mixed a little too far back to really take the spotlight.
So... let's be honest. This is a pretty milquetoast pop tune. But I’ll totally defend it, because it’s representative of something important:
For most of us, our lives are spent celebrating minor victories and navigating unexpected setbacks. We do our best to survive the long haul by keeping an eye out for opportunities, and keeping our cool when things go haywire.
A pop song like Scherzinger’s “Baby Love,” which was clearly aiming for the top of the charts, but just doesn’t quite connect — maybe it’s a little too long, or the hooks aren’t hooky enough, or the lyrics aren’t great, or the delivery is a little off, or whatever — these songs are too often compared to the #1s and global smashes which they aspired to be. Phrases like “shelved album” and “didn’t chart in the US” are often used by writers in a tone that amounts to a snicker, a barb.
Scherzinger herself made the decision to shelve this album — a debut album which bore as its title a statement of her own identity — because sometimes you have make the tough calls. Sometimes you have to fold this hand in order to ante up for the next.⁸
She went on to repurpose some of these songs for Doll Domination, which charted worldwide, and went platinum or gold in a bunch of markets. The Pussycat Dolls went on a world tour, where they bridged two generations of pop stars by opening for Britney Spears on the US leg of the Circus tour, while Lady Gaga opened for them internationally.⁹
She was offered the chance to do TV and took it. She won Dancing with the Stars because she’s a boss. She played Maddie in a Niel Patrick Harris directed staging of Rent. She put together 1D. Or Simon did, or whatever.
…THEN — 4 years later — she released her proper debut album (Killer Love). The material is stronger. It’s more focused. The lyrics and melodies are more interesting. Her vocal delivery is more confident. It has a Sting feature. It’s just a better debut album.
Sometimes it takes a little while to get where you’re going, but you just gotta stay cool, and and work through it. It’s in the wake of these near misses where you really begin to get a feel for the tenacity required to dust yourself off and keep going.
When things get rough, and my plans are going sideways, I will think of Nicole Scherzinger, and I will sing “Baby Love.” Because at these times I am Nicole in 2007, shelving my first debut album; knowing it might take me a couple years on the grind before I get back to the studio… and it do it right.
 I’m a grown-ass man, I can do what I want to.
 I was lucky enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit last year, where you can check out the original Studio A, and shout up at the reverb chamber. They have Michael Jackson’s original sequined white glove and hat from Motown 25 there, too.
 The Smeezingtons can send a fancy song to #1. Chart-topping 50s/60s-pop-influenced artists Meghan Trainor and Charly Puth use occasional secondary dominants and V7b9s to achieve this “classic” sound [see Marvin Gaye: “Oh there’s lovin’ in your eyes…”]. Amy Winehouse’s untimely death leaves us to wonder how much commercially viable, musically excellent material she might have brought into to the pop world. :(
 In a lot of ways, her career is a great example of the kinds of quick-thinking pivots which were necessary to survive the catastrophic music industry contraction of the 2000s, and subsequent seizing of new opportunities as they arose.
 Nicole’s proper debut “Killer Love” was released in 2011 (netting her first solo UK #1 “Don’t Hold Your Breath” a synthpop banger), followed by 2014’s “Big Fat Lie”.
 Non-producers may recognize this effect as the “Going Into The Matrix” sound — which also includes bitcrushing and downsampling.