When 'Don't be Cruel' bum-rushed the pop charts in 1988, it looked as if Bobby Brown had single-handedly rewritten the rules of contemporary R&B. He certainly wasn't the first singer to take advantage of New Jack Swing's blend of hard hip-hop beats and smooth soul crooning Keith Sweat had by then already cracked the R&B charts with "I Want Her" but Brown turned the sound into a mainstream-pop bonanza. Some of that had to do with his voice, which always managed to show a little steel beneath the silken croon he polished as part of... Read More
New Edition; even more derived from the production team supporting him, which between the rhythmic intensity of Teddy Riley and the pop savvy of L.A. and Babyface provided a set of state-of-the-art backing tracks.
But what really put Bobby Brown over the top was his charm. As anyone who saw him swagger through the videos for "My Prerogative" and "Every Little Step" can attest, Brown had a phenomenal ability to convey a sense of street toughness that was utterly without malice or menace, making him credible and likable. As much as anything he sang, his charisma ultimately won over the New Jack Swing vote.
A lot can change in four years, though, and it's going to take a lot more than charm to make Bobby seem like anything but high-gloss pop product. Obviously, part of the problem has to do with the way Brown has been eclipsed in the crossover sweepstakes by Michael "Biv" Bivins, another New Edition alumnus, whose track record as a producer and performer long ago surpassed Brown's. But even if Brown hadn't sat so long on the sidelines, it's hard to believe Bobby would do much to bolster his standing, because it lacks the one ingredient that made Don't Be Cruel so exciting: daring.
Put bluntly, Bobby hews so closely to the sound and structure of Don't Be Cruel that you half expect there to be a II in the title. For instance, the brassy hook that holds "Humpin' Around" together bears a more than passing resemblance to the synth part from "My Prerogative," while "College Girl" does its damnedest to come across as "Roni Goes to College." Yet as devotedly as Brown and his cohorts mostly Riley and L.A. and Babyface, although Brown is behind the board for "College Girl" follow his last album's lead, the results rarely seem like more than a pale imitation of the original.
That's not to say the album is unlistenable, of course. This may be coolly calculated product, but when you're dealing with craftsmen as accomplished as these, you rarely get shoddy goods. As such, there's more than a little pleasure to be had from the multilayered groove of "Get Away," with its fat bass, slamming drums and canny quote from Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep," or from the lush, electronically treated backing vocals shoring up the chorus to "Til the End of Time." These may not be original ideas, but they're executed so professionally that it's hard