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.