CD Review: El DeBarge, “Second Chance”

To the average pop music fan, the return of El DeBarge after a 16-year absence might not mean much. After all, most rock crits (DeBarge-loving Robert Christgau aside) don’t consider El to be much more than a pretty voice who had a couple of cheesy pop hits in the Eighties (if they consider him at all). The average pop culture website (like this one) (Hey! Who you callin’ average? –Ed.) is more apt to remember El’s goofy appearance auditioning background singers on The Facts of Life in 1985 than they would be to recall the fact that the man was pretty formidable in his day, blessed with good looks and talent that rivaled the pop/R&B giants of the Eighties like Michael and Prince.

If you’re a soul music fan, particularly if you’re between, say, 30 and 50 years old, then there’s a good chance you’ve been waiting for El to return to the spotlight the same way a six-year-old waits in front of the Christmas tree to come down the chimney. Actually, you can be excused for thinking that El would never make an album again. A string of underperforming records, crappy promotion and personal issues derailed El’s career by the mid-Nineties, making him one of soul music’s great “what if” stories before he’d even hit 35 years of age. Things continued traveling downhill for El, reaching an unfortunate nadir when the singer was imprisoned back in 2008.

Thankfully, the strength of his catalog kept his music circulating while the artist himself was absent: DeBarge samples powered huge hip-hop & R&B hits by the likes of Ashanti (“Foolish”), 2Pac (“I Ain’t Mad at Cha”), Blackstreet (“Don’t Leave Me”) and The Notorious B.I.G. (“One More Chance”), while cover versions by the likes of Patti LaBelle and Mary J. Blige turned up from time to time. Other members of his talented family tried to pick up the slack as well: brother Chico had a string of R&B hits a decade or so ago, and his niece Kristinia had a Top 40 hit last year with “Goodbye.” A comeback seemed within El’s reach, but for a long time, it just didn’t seem like El himself was interested.

The most amazing thing about Second Chance, DeBarge’s first release since 1994, is that he still looks and sounds as good as ever. One would think that after fighting through a debilitating drug addiction, El’s voice would suffer through some Whitney Houston-style deterioration. However, his smooth tenor remains a thing of beauty, to say nothing of his higher register, something that artists half his age would struggle to emulate. His songwriting and production chops don’t seem to have deteriorated either, and Second Chance turns out to be a triumphant return to form.

Much like recent comebacks (after similarly long layoffs) by smooth soulsters like Sade and Maxwell, Second Chance is much better than it has any business being. Although El handles much of the songwriting, he is joined by a collection of  writers and producers that includes the legendary Babyface as well as the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. These folks manage to keep El contemporary without saddling him with embarrassingly inappropriate material. So while Second Chance boasts cameos by the likes of 50 Cent and Fabolous, they don’t sound out of place, particularly if you’re familiar with some of the delightfully ribald crooning El did on a couple of DJ Quik albums in the late Nineties. Actually, it’s to El’s credit that he makes these collaborations more than tolerable, because in most cases, I wouldn’t give songs with Fiddy or Fab a second look.

While staying in a contemporary R&B framework, the songs on Second Chance prove that El is still comfortable with a fairly wide range of material. The album’s top-shelf songs range from the sunny, anthemic “Heaven” to the plaintive, autobiographical title track. “Lay With You,” the midtempo duet with Faith Evans that serves as the current single, is a highlight, as is the softly seductive “Serenading.” Several songs directly reach back to the DeBarge sound of old. El directly quotes himself on “5 Seconds,” while “Joyful” bears more than a passing resemblance to “There’ll Never Be,” the R&B classic first recorded by his late older brother Bobby’s band Switch.

Given all that El has put himself through recently, Second Chance is a triumph simply by virtue of existing. However, this album does much more than simply exist. By creating one of 2010’s most solid soul albums, El has proven that he deserves the chance he’s gotten. Let’s hope he continues to make good on the reprieve he’s been given.

  • Liesel J.

    What a BEAUTIFUL review!! I totally agree, this album is such a welcome surprise. We all were happy to see Eldra back, but BOY DID HE COME BACK!! Love this album so much. An INSTANT Classic!

  • pinkwash

    Well written and thorough review. Good job! Support El DeBarge get his CD out now! It’s beautiful, instant classic. Timeless even! Go El!

  • Niqua

    This was a wonderful and thorough review! I’m loving this album, which I’ve been listening to since it came out yesterday.

  • Nilequeen69


  • LHayes25

    Yes!!!!!! Great review and El has been nominated for 2 Grammys…The year of El is upon us and I am so grateful to have one of my favorite singers back!!!!!! REAL GENUINE GOOOOOOOD!!!!!!!!! MUSIC has returned from the man who started it!!!!!!!!

  • Lady D

    I’m so happy to hear from El again. I thank God for helping him through his trials and tribulations. El’s new CD is wonderful. I look forward to hearing more of his music.

  • Debwill29

    beautifully put together piece of work!everybody deserves a second chance!!!!!!!!!1

  • Soulblest

    Wow! I was brought to tears hearing this for the first time then watching him perform it live the 2nd time! OMG! The boy is STILL BAD! I am soooooo proud of the awesome review given on his behalf and I am so supportive of his CD. I love love love this project and support ANYONE who humbles themself to ask for forgiveness and wait for God’s perfect timing to be redeemed. Well done El! We Still love you!

  • Zandraw43

    Hello El, you might not remember me I was the one that call you one for a screening on the phone. And you invited me to your mother’s house off of Stocker to meet you. You had just came out of the hospital and you were in bad shape. If you remember than look me up on facebook/zandra w. I am glad you are back.

  • Tj_hinson_pope

    I have been trying to purchase his CD for two weeks. Only 10 was sent to Wal-mart in White Plains and Target is sold out, they haven’t gotten a shipment in 2 weeks.