When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: Bobby Brown, “Don’t Be Cruel”

It seems almost mind-blowing to think this now, but at the end of the 1980s there was no bigger star in the pop sky than Bobby Brown: Don’t Be Cruel sold over seven million copies in the United States alone. He was dating pop princess Whitney Houston (they got married in ’92). He appeared in Ghostbusters II, sparking excitement over a burgeoning acting career. He even made New Edition a big name once again simply by being part of a rumor that he was going to rejoin the group.

Only one problem — Bobby Brown couldn’t stop “being Bobby Brown.” And what more and more people would learn over time was that “being Bobby Brown” meant being a complete fucking idiot:

• When Brown defiantly rapped “Bobby Brown was good to go solo” in the 1989 remix of his top-ten hit “Every Little Step,” he neglected to mention that it really wasn’t his choice: Brown got voted out of New Edition by the other members in early ’86 because he was giving them a bad image. Specifically, he wouldn’t stop simulating intercourse onstage at their concerts. Solo success only emboldened Brown in this area: while appearing as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1992 to promote Don’t Be Cruel‘s follow-up, simply titled Bobby, Brown and two backup dancers spent what seemed like a good 30 seconds of their dance breakdown dry humping the floor. It’s a tradition that Brown proudly carries on to this day, as confirmed by this concert review from Australia’s The Age newspaper last July: “At a very nineties venue in Melbourne last night, a very nineties star arrived to show his diminished legion of fans he still had it. Just what that was is unclear, but one thing’s for sure — he had me in fits of laughter. Who knew watching a former rapper, who’s pushing 40, hump the mike stand, the floor and the air would have such entertainment value?”

• Brown finally rejoined New Edition for 1996’s Home Again and headed out on tour with them. The result was, as I believe the French call it, une piece du merde. Brown left the tour halfway through its scheduled route, partly because of complaints from other members of the group about his well-established humping techniques and for extending his solo sets longer than originally planned. Brown was also put off by the fact that, at least in his own mind, he was a still a solo star. As he explained it — I’m paraphrasing — “I can make 40K a night by myself. Why should I come out here and split that with five other guys?” Reality wouldn’t get in the way of his actual artistic skills, either, as Brown proceeded to fire producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from his recording sessions, and write and produce his next — and, to date, last — solo album, 1997’s Forever, all by himself. This tank job led to the past decade of Bobby Brown, best known for drug addiction, divorce, and reality TV.

• Even if you’re a teenager who isn’t familiar with Bobby Brown the singer, you’re probably very familiar with Bobby Brown the multiple arrestee (by way of the Smoking Gun‘s website). I think most of us have lost count: there are arrests for cocaine, for assaulting Whitney Houston, for reckless driving, for not paying child support, and the ever popular “parole violation,” which basically translates to an inability to stop being arrested. This subject leads me to my favorite Bobby Brown story of them all: One time he got pulled over for speeding in Texas and it turned out his license was suspended, so when the cop asked him for it he replied, “I don’t have a license … but I’m Bobby Brown.” Shockingly, this didn’t satisfy the cop, and Bobby was placed under arrest. Upon being notified that he had the right to remain silent, etc., Brown said, “Well, I guess then you’re gonna want this,” and pulled a bag of weed out of his pants pocket.

Bobby Brown, you irrepressible scamp! What will you think of next? Well, as a matter of fact, Bobby has reportedly joined New Edition yet again, and plans to be on their new album and tour with them in 2008, while at the same promoting a new solo album due out from the Inc., the label formerly known as Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. This will surely end well, don’t you think?

In the meantime, we can re-enjoy Brown’s moment in the sun, 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel. Produced and cowritten by Teddy Riley and the duo of Babyface and L.A. Reid (still business partners as of this day), Don’t Be Cruel was the popular, if not critical, pinnacle of the New Jack Swing movement, a crossroads R&B concoction that, to quote Boyz II Men themselves, blended “hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal.” The album’s two production teams created a series of songs that played well off the tough but tender quality of Brown’s voice as well as his brass-balls attitude. The result was a synergistic work that got played equally in urban and suburban markets. While the title track (download) and first single peaked at around the same time as “If It Isn’t Love,” the first single from New Edition’s latest album, Heart Break, Brown blew his old cohorts out of the water for the rest of the year and long into the next. The final tally for Don’t Be Cruel: eight weeks at #1, two Grammy nominations, and five top-ten hits, including the #1 song that taught America a new vocabulary word, “My Prerogative.”

If that wasn’t enough, mainstream audiences also learned a new word on the album’s masterpiece, “Roni” (download). Short for “tenderoni,” originally 1970s slang meaning “sweet young thing,” the unabridged version of the word was sung by Michael Jackson in 1982’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” But it was Brown who really made “roni” mean something other than pasta or rice to the general masses. This Babyface-driven creation is relentlessly smooth, even when Brown breaks it down for his awfully good LL Cool J “I Need Love”-style rap. The backing vocals blend perfectly with his lead and are laid over ‘Face and Reid’s spare but hook-driven arrangement. This most assuredly was a big hit during school dances in ’88 and ’89, especially since the six-minute running time allowed couples to sneak in a few extra smooches.

As an added bonus, here’s the “Roni” remix (download), which got as much airplay back in the day as the original version did on KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. It’s just different enough from the “traditional” mix (check out the Roger-style backing vox), but when played back to back with the original, the two versions contain enough smooth vibes that you may find yourself wanting to dry hump something too. Just don’t do it in public.