It was only a matter of time. After Bobby Brown was kicked out of New Edition in 1985 and then put out his first solo record, the road was set for the other members of the group to venture out with individual projects. Expectations were high after Don’t Be Cruel, Brown’s sophomore album, became a runaway success—and all the remaining members of New Edition put out releases in 1990. Johnny Gill came first, with his self-titled album featuring the hit single “My, My, My.” Just a month later, group members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronald DeVoe became Bell Biv DeVoe—BBD—and took a hip-hop approach with their multiplatinum album, Poison.
By the end of 1990, it was Ralph Tresvant’s turn to step up to the mic alone. The results were mixed, but as a whole, he brought the post-New Edition era full circle as a successful foray for all.
Everything you need to know about: Ralph Tresvant’s debut album, Ralph Tresvant.
Pretest: At age 19, this legendary Tejano singer famously performed a live cover of Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” live in concert.*
Background research: New Edition’s lead singer had a hurdle to leap that his fellow band members did not. Like many young singers (think Michael Jackson and, later, singers like Tevin Campbell), Tresvant begin his career with an exceptionally high voice, reaching into falsetto on some of New Edition’s earliest hits. Puberty can put a lot of young singers out of business. So the very idea that Tresvant was able to hit a decent array of notes in adulthood was a victory in itself.
But given that it had heavy-hitting producers like Babyface, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, one would have expected Tresvant’s first offering to land a heavier punch. His first single, “Sensitivity,” briefly went to No. 1. But the ballad, with his whisper-light vocals and New Jack-light production, wasn’t on the same level of the grand slams that filled Brown’s, Gill’s and BBD’s solo offerings.
Part of the issue was that the other members of the group had new identities they could slip into to truly reinvent themselves. With the exception of Gill, who had already solidified his R&B roots before joining the group, the other members of the group were able to fully shed their teen-idol personas and go for a raunchier sound. Tresvant’s lane was narrow: romantic first-date tracks that kept his audience relegated to his New Edition fans.
Why Ralph Tresvant matters: It’s hard to think of another musical group whose members took a hiatus and had near-equal success as separate acts before regrouping. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill left Pras Michel behind; Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon left Ringo Starr behind; Beyoncé left every other member of Destiny’s Child in the dust. But Tresvant’s album did just well enough to allow New Edition to achieve the rare feat of performing just as well apart as they did together.
The essential two-song playlist: While Tresvant released three singles from this album, one of those was “Stone Cold Gentleman,” which, quite frankly, doesn’t hold up well 25 years later. The first two singles, “Sensitivity” and “Do What I Gotta Do,” can still find a home on your next why’d-you-do-me-so-wrong playlist.
Homework: A reconnected New Edition just recently wrapped up a nationwide tour. Keep your eyes peeled in the new year for the next leg of the tour. They haven’t missed a step.
* Pretest: Selena performed “Sensitivity” at a San Antonio concert.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.