When it comes to listing the most influential artists of our generation, one group that definitely gets short shrift is New Edition. Alternately dismissed as a teen-pop fad or “that group that Bobby Brown came from” (never mind that Brown wasn’t even the group’s lead singer), N.E., for better or for worse, is responsible for every “boy band” that’s danced in a video over the past 30 years. They were also one of the first groups to successfully fuse R&B and hip-hop on record, setting the stage for just about everything you hear on Top 40 radio today. As far as the R&B vocal group tradition goes, they were the bridge between the Jacksons (who they most closely modeled themselves after) and neo-harmony groups like Dru Hill, Jodeci and Boyz II Men (who were discovered by N.E.’s Michael Bivins and named after a New Edition song.) At the height of their success, they split up, Voltron Force style, and wound up (in most cases) being more successful than the original group. All that, and Bobby Brown? More than enough material for a Popdose Guide.
Although N.E. hasn’t released an album in over half a decade, the members have remained in the public eye to an extent. Johnny Gill recently released an excellent new CD called Still Winning, Bobby published his autobiography, the group’s iconic “If It Isn’t Love” video was referenced by Beyonce in her new “Love On Top” clip, and the men (now all in their early forties) are in the process of routing a tour that will hopefully provide as much enjoyment to their fans as they did when I saw them back in 2003. Hard to believe it’s been almost thirty years since “Candy Girl.” Three decades, over 100 Billboard chart entries (collectively and individually) and some serious dental work (sorry, Ralph) later, let’s celebrate the discography of Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike…plus Ralph and Johnny.
Candy Girl (1983)
New Edition’s debut album (and the only one helmed by the Maurice Starr/Michael Jonzun/Arthur Baker team) takes the kiddie-pop formula invented by Motown for the Jackson Five and resets it for the early hip-hop generation. Enthusiasm is the order of the day here; you can practically visualize the frenetic popping and locking that’s taking place as these songs are playing. Starr and company generally wrote catchier and stronger songs for New Edition than they did for New Edition’s successors, New Kids on the Block, so despite the gross disparity in sales between Candy Girl and, say, Hangin’ Tough, the former album holds up a lot better over time. “Popcorn Love” and “She Gives Me a Bang” are still effervescent after 30 years (if you can take Ralph Tresvant’s shrill pre-pubescent vocals), “Candy Girl” is a stone-cold classic (which amazingly didn’t cross over the pop Top 40 in the U.S.), and “Is This the End” and “Jealous Girl” are still charming slow jams, off-key vocalizing and all.
New Edition (1984)
N.E. bolted from the employ of Maurice Starr (with no money in their pockets, according to at least some of the group members) and took their talents to a major label, jumping on board with MCA Records. This self-titled set turned into a huge success, going multi-platinum and scoring huge across-the-board hits with “Cool it Now” and “Mr. Telephone Man.” Their sound was slowly moving from kiddie to teenage and their voices were changing appropriately (why do I feel like the producers made Tresvant sing outside of his range to exploit the “Candy Girl” sound?). Ray Parker Jr.’s “Mr. Telephone Man” is easily the standout track, but, again, New Edition holds up a lot better than most albums made by a teenage group. “I’m Leaving You Again” (which several group members co-wrote) takes the first tentative stabs at heart breaking (and turned out to be a radio hit anyway), “Lost in Love” is an excellent starry-eyed ballad, and “Kinda Girls We Like” is a credible hip-hop inspired track. This and Candy Girl are pretty much neck-and-neck for the title of Best New Edition album: the teenage years. No Maurice Starr? No problem!
All for Love (1985)
All for Love was the third New Edition album in as many years, and the wear was starting to show. With this album there was definitely the sense of “let’s rewrite as many of the hits as possible from the last album,” so you have “Count Me Out” (which sounds a lot like “Cool it Now”) and “With You All the Way” (which is reminiscent of “Lost in Love”). In addition, by the time of this album’s release, Bobby had already been missing performances and bristling against New Edition’s squeaky-clean image. So even though the group was making inroads towards making more adult-oriented material (“Whispers in Bed”), All for Love as a whole isn’t as solid as the first two albums, despite the fact that it helped New Edition win the first of their American Music Awards for Favorite R&B Group and went platinum. The album’s best song, “A Little Bit of Love (Is All it Takes)” (co-written by Michael Sembello!) is readily available on just about any of the three million N.E. compilations on the market, so there’s really no reason to own this.
Under the Blue Moon (1986)
I’m a fairly big fan of New Edition, together and separately, OK? So when I tell you to avoid this album at all costs, please take me at my word. After their cover of The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” became a hit in the summer of 1986 (thanks to its inclusion in The Karate Kid Part II), someone thought it would be a good idea for the group to record an album of Fifties and Sixties songs. Not only was the album not as successful as previous efforts, but it sucked. Plain and simple. Is there anyone out there who’ll even admit to owning (and liking) this album?
Heart Break (1988)
In the two years following the release of Under the Blue Moon, New Edition went through a series of career-defining changes. Bobby was fired at the beginning of 1986 and by the end of the year, he had a #1 single on the R&B charts with “Girlfriend.” In the wake of Bobby’s initial success, Ralph Tresvant was also considering a solo career. As an insurance measure, Michael Bivins recruited Johnny Gill (who’d already released three moderately-received solo albums). As it turned out, Tresvant didn’t go solo, and he and Gill had to co-exist as lead singers.
Fresh from making Janet Jackson relevant with Control, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were hired to turn N.E. into a credible adult act. The resulting album, Heart Break, was a triumphant set that capitalized on the growing popularity of hip-hop and R&B fusion. Songs like “N.E. Heartbreak” had a youthful edge, “Can You Stand the Rain” and “I’m Comin’ Home” were perfect “mature” ballads for quiet storm radio, “You’re Not My Kind of Girl” showcased their Jackson 5/Temptations vocal group chops, and “Boys to Men” not only provided the group with a mission statement, but gave a group of New Edition protégés their name.
Home Again (1996)
Following each member’s stab at solo success (and mogul-dom), all six current and former members of New Edition reunited for 1996’s Home Again. They were joined by a who’s-who of contemporary producers, from Jam & Lewis (still relevant nearly a decade after Heart Break) to Jermaine Dupri and Puff Daddy. The end result? It sounds like New Edition barely missed a beat in their eight years apart. Of course, the solo successes shifted the group dynamic, so you hear less Ralph, more Bobby, and much more of Michael Bivins and Ron DeVoe rapping.
Jam & Lewis remained the group’s most sympathetic collaborators, producing the album’s best cuts: the pop ballad “I’m Still in Love with You,” the Edie Brickell-sampling “Something About You” and the emotional title track. Gerald LeVert’s “How Do You Like Your Love Served?” is an excellent slow jam, and “Hit Me Off” does a good job of giving each of the six members a turn to shine. Home Again turned out to be a smash, debuting at #1 on the albums chart and selling over two million copies. However, egos reared their ugly head, and within a year, the group was more or less defunct again.
One Love (2004)
While Bobby spent most of the late Nineties and early Aughts getting himself in and out of various legal issues, the other members of New Edition toured individually and separately before signing a deal with P. Diddy’s Bad Boy label. What on paper seemed like a great idea — Puffy made his name trafficking in the hip-hop/R&B fusion that New Edition pioneered, and also took notes from Mike Bivins’ reign as a music mogul — turned out to be a bit of a mediocre affair. Diddy turned N.E. over to Bad Boy’s army of writers and producers and gave them material that sounded like it had been left over from 112 recording sessions. Even more bloated than Home Again, One Love nevertheless had a few noteworthy tracks: first single “Hot 2 Nite” was a welcome 21st century update of the N.E. sound, and the two tracks that brought Jam and Lewis back on board (the airy, midtempo “Newness” and the classy ballad “Rewrite the Memories”) were excellent. The members were in good voice; this time, the material just wasn’t up to par.
After two years of missed performances, rumors and innuendo, Bobby Brown was booted from New Edition by the rest of the group (hell hath no fury like a group that’s getting their money messed with by an unreliable member) in early 1986. His solo career got off to a mediocre start later that year with King of Stage. Although it’s not a bad album (it contains some fine tracks produced by Cameo’s Larry Blackmon), Bobby’s still trying to navigate the right balance of street and sweet.
By the time Don’t Be Cruel rolled around in the summer of ’88, that balance had definitely been navigated. Cruel was the #1 selling album of ’89, and it turned Bobby from “that dude that used to be in New Edition” into a contender for the crown of King of Pop — however briefly. Assisted by the production of Teddy Riley and the L.A. Reid/Babyface team, hits like “Every Little Step” and the album’s title track perfectly blended modern R&B with hip-hop kick and attitude, while slow jams like “Roni” and “Rock Wit’cha” were fully grown-up slow jams. The self-referential “My Prerogative” shot to the top of the pop and R&B charts, Bobby took home a slew of awards (including a Grammy), and was set to become one of the biggest stars of the Nineties.
I won’t say meeting, then getting involved with and subsequently marrying Whitney Houston killed his career, because it probably didn’t. Bobby, released barely a month after Brown married the Princess of Pop, sold well (2 million plus) and was actually a really good album, despite taking full advantage of the CD era and being 4-5 songs too long (someone should have told Bobby to remove the overwrought duet with some random Winans sister, at least). Although in some ways, Bobby was an obvious retread of Don’t Be Cruel, he was certainly still a star. Then The Bodyguard happened, Whitney’s career went super-duper-nova, and Bobby started getting in trouble with the law. For a couple of years, the only time you saw Bobby Brown was either accompanying Whitney to an awards show (at which she’d inevitably scoop up a mantelful of trophies) or on the news after getting arrested AGAIN. His last gasp was 1997’s you-probably-shouldn’t-have-called-it-that Forever. Bobby’s singing voice had definitely improved, but his material definitely hadn’t, and most of the album seemed like one long exercise to see how many times he could work his name into a song lyric.
From Don’t Be Cruel to Forever in less than a decade? That’s a pretty long way to fall, and Bobby hasn’t released a full album (as a solo artist or as a member of New Edition, which has let him back into the fold several times) since.
Bell Biv DeVoe:
As the story goes, New Edition’s Heart Break tour was over. Johnny Gill had already decided to resume his solo career and Ralph Tresvant had also decided to make a record on his own. It wasn’t until the suggestion was made by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ron DeVoe (AKA “those other three guys”) got the idea to make an album on their own. The end result wound up being a bigger success than Gill’s album, Tresvant’s album, and everything recorded by New Edition as a group before or since. Poison gave the fellas the opportunity to shake off the Temptations-inspired choreography and the glittery suits and be regular dudes in their twenties. With an assist from Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, songs like “BBD (I Thought It Was Me)” and the delightfully horny “Do Me!” pointed the way to a much, MUCH harder-edged sound in R&B and one of the most seamless integrations of hip-hop into a soul-influenced sound. The songs (and the production) wound up being so good that you almost forgot how mediocre Bivins and DeVoe were as emcees (sorry, guys). The album’s slammin’ title track still gets played (and referenced in pop culture) on a regular basis and is one of the most fondly remembered songs of the Nineties. This should have been the start to a long, successful splinter career, but…wait. Where have we heard this before?
What sunk BBD? Well, the rapidly changing face of hip-hop and R&B, for one. The trio waited three years before unleashing their sophomore effort, Hootie Mack. In those three years, artists like TLC (conceived as a female version of BBD), Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and Bivins’ own discovery Boyz II Men had come to the forefront of the genre. In layman’s terms: you snooze, you lose. The album also had the misfortune of being delayed multiple times (to the point where a single, “Gangsta,” was released, performed moderately well, and then got left off the album) and using already outdated slang for a joint as the title of their album. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic this was most definitely not. The album didn’t suck totally (and it went gold), but the two best songs were both ballads: the yearning “Please Come Back” and the frankly erotic “Something in Your Eyes,” a song on which only one Bell Biv DeVoe member (Ricky) appeared.
The less said about 2001’s BBD, the better. This album was, in a word, embarrassing. In two words: phenomenally embarrassing. Sample song title: “Dance Bitch.” Number of good songs: one (“In My Crib,” which features a vocal assist from…Ralph Tresvant, sounding as smooth as ever). Time from purchase to being sold to the used CD emporium: I honestly don’t remember, but it couldn’t have been more than six months.
Ricky Bell made one solo album a few years ago that flew so far under the radar I didn’t even know it was out for a couple of years. I haven’t listened to it–if anyone has a copy they can send over to me, please do!
Signed to a recording contract before he was 18. Johnny Gill’s lusty baritone had record company executives dancing around with stars in their eyes, convinced they’d found the next Luther Vandross or Teddy Pendergrass. Problem was: Johnny was still a kid. His voice was older than he was. So, although he made two solo albums prior to joining New Edition (and an additional one with his main benefactor, Stacy Lattisaw), more often than not, the material wasn’t there. He hitched his wagon to New Edition at precisely the right time, and contrary to public opinion, he was not brought in to replace Brown. He was actually brought in as insurance, as Tresvant was considering leaving for a solo career. Gill coming in was as smart a move as Tresvant sticking around, and by 1990, the stage was set for JG to make moves on the solo tip once again.
His self-titled Motown debut spawned huge hits with the quiet-storm staple “My, My, My” and the dancefloor classic “Rub You The Right Way.” More importantly, it served as a clash of the R&B producer titans — it was the first time that Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid and Babyface had all worked on the same album. That should tell you how much of an investment was made in making Gill a megastar. That 1990 solo album was a state-of-the-art collection that deftly straddled the line between appealing to young adults while not scaring off their parents, the way BBD (and to an extent, Brown) did.
Gill’s had a reasonably consistent solo career since, releasing solid albums every couple of years until the first part of this decade. In between solo albums (and returning to New Edition), he was also a part of the R&B supergroup LSG, along with Keith Sweat and the late Gerald LeVert. Their 1997 debut was a huge seller, although attempts to pull off flossy Puffy and Jermaine Dupri-assisted hip-hop/R&B didn’t work so well. A follow-up a few years later debuted in the Top 10, but sank like a stone soon afterwards.
Gill’s latest album, Still Winning, is a pretty solid set of midtempo-to-slow R&B ballads. It’s significantly less embarrassing than you’d expect from someone who’s been out of the record-releasing game for so long. Of course, that voice is still a wonder to behold, and it’s so nice to hear him again that you can forgive the occasional wanderings into Auto-Tune territory. The album peaked at #12 on the Billboard Top 200 a couple of months ago, giving Gill his highest chart rank (as a solo artist) in 20 years.
Strange how New Edition’s lead singer was the last to get off the ground on the solo tip, and how Tresvant’s sound broke from the New Edition mold least. Jam & Lewis helmed much of his debut solo effort, which spawned the hits “Sensitivity,” “Stone Cold Gentleman” and “Do What I Gotta Do.” Add a couple of “ooh”s into the mix and it could easily have been a New Edition album. Ralph Tresvant still holds up reasonably well. In a way, “Sensitivity” was the polar opposite of “Poison” from a lyrical sentiment standpoint. While largely Ralph’s and Ralph’s alone, the album features appearances from Bobby Brown (rapping on “Stone Cold Gentleman”), future R&B star K-Ci Hailey (singing backup), and Michael Jackson (who co-wrote one song).
Like BBD and Gill, Tresvant took three years to finish his second album, and the end result was the borderline-putrid It’s Goin’ Down. This album found Tresvant doing a total 180 from “Sensitivity” and putting on his pimp hat with songs like “Sex-O” and “The Booty Affair” (yes, those really are the songs’ titles). The album sank like a stone, and Tresvant didn’t release another solo album for over a decade. Rizz-Wa-Faire was a decent if unspectacular effort that, if nothing else, highlighted how much of a debt guys like Chris Brown and Justin Timberlake owe vocally to Tresvant, who still sounds like a 16 year old even as he approaches his mid-forties.
This remix of “Sensitivity” is SICK.