I’m a Bobby Brown fan. I’m not sure I’m at stan levels, but I did shell out the money to buy the hardback copy of his autobiography (written with the assistance of Nick Chiles—it’s painfully obvious where Bobby either had help or didn’t write at all) and read it immediately in one sitting.
While the book wasn’t nearly as provocative as I’d expected it to be—basically, Bobby always believed in himself; had a rough but love-filled upbringing; had sex with everybody, including a ghost and a midget; and kind of hates Whitney Houston’s family save for a few folks—I had to support my man Bob. I also like the middle name Barisford.
I also believe that his 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel is arguably the greatest R&B album ever created post-Off the Wall (I consider Thriller to be a pop album). Don’t Be Cruel opened up every single door Brown could ever want opened. He toured for roughly three years on that album. It went over seven times platinum and spawned five top 10 Billboard pop chart hits. Those same five songs (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “My Prerogative,” “Roni,” “Rock Wit’cha” and “Every Little Step”) all hit the top three on the R&B charts, with “Cruel,” “Prerogative” and “Roni” hitting the No. 1 spot. That album went gangbusters. Before it, he was Bobby Brown from New Edition; after, he was just Bobby Brown.
I’ve always felt like the world was better off with Bobby having been successful at his craft. Bobby has that superstar “it” factor. But did Bobby make Don’t Be Cruel, or did Don’t Be Cruel make Bobby? It’s a chicken-or-egg thing for sure, but an interesting question nonetheless: Was Bobby going to be as successful as he was with or without Don’t Be Cruel? It’s a question that speaks to a lot of artists’ greatness and whether or not cream is going to rise to the top regardless.
The question arose in a group chat I had with several of my friends this morning. One of my friends posits that because Bobby has swag—he does, in spades—he was destined to be a superstar. This statement arose because another friend said that without New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” Bobby never would have gotten a solo career because he wasn’t a lead in New Edition; that nod goes to Ralph Tresvant, always and forever. That song led to the opportunity that eventually led to Bobby going nuclear in 1988.
Let’s start at the beginning. New Edition, while a great group, was basically a vehicle for Ralph Tresvant. If you let the BET movie tell it, Ralph was the one the producers wanted after their early talent-show success (entirely believable) but required the rest of his fellas to be brought along. Ralph was a standout from jump. You can hear it on songs like “Is This the End?” which could have easily been a Jackson 5 or Sylvers song. On “Candy Girl” and most of their songs through their early albums, Ralph’s voice is not only the most distinguishable—it’s also the most present.
Again, if you let the movie tell it, producers always kept Ralph in the studio, and the others more or less were there on an as-needed basis. This storyline played out somewhat in the case of SWV as well, according to their TV One Unsung episode. On “Mr. Telephone Man,” though, Bobby was the clear standout, even in the video. Bobby got a lot of voice time on the song with Ralph and to a lesser extent Ricky. Mike did his Mike thing and Ron was light-skinned.
But it is true that the song itself gave Bobby some of the attention he coveted. Eventually, things went sour within the group and Bobby left. At 16 he released King of Stage, which spawned an R&B chart No. 1 single, “Girlfriend.” The rest of New Edition, as you know, went on to release Heart Break, with Johnny Gill replacing Bobby and taking on a co-lead role with Ralph. In 1986, when King of Stage came out, Bobby was 16 and, if you listen to the album, was attempting to come into his own. There’s nothing groundbreaking there and the album is largely forgotten, with most people thinking Don’t Be Cruel is his debut album.
However, Don’t Be Cruel was another monster altogether. For starters, MCA (the label he shared with New Edition) decided to go all in and brought in the super-hot duo of L.A. Reid and Babyface, and Bobby linked up with Teddy Riley (though Gene Griffin gets all of the credit; you should listen to Teddy Riley talk about those days of uncredited music in interviews) to create “My Prerogative,” and the rest is history. He was laced with some of the best songs you could get at the time. To me, it’s the R&B equivalent of Thriller, with an urban, street edge and feel. The album did exactly what it was supposed to: It rocketed up the charts and hit No. 1 for both the pop and R&B.
Ralph Tresvant was supposed to be the most successful one in New Edition. For starters, he was the voice and, ultimately, the face of New Edition. He sang lead on roughly 99 percent of the songs, and while their fans loved different members, I’d be surprised if the vast majority of fans (and women in particular) didn’t love Ralph the most. He had the look and the role as lead. Nobody in New Edition’s early iteration could sing very well—Ralph included—but that wasn’t the selling point of New Edition. They were great performers and looked great doing it. But Ralph ... Ralph was the one. The success of New Edition, before their Bad Boy resurgence, rested largely on his shoulders. There is no New Edition without him.
Ralph did eventually go solo—when everybody did—and released his self-titled album at the end of 1990 (BBD’s Poison album came out in March of 1990) with lead single “Sensitivity,” a midtempo, low-energy classic. The song and album fit Ralph very well. But while it was a good album, it didn’t have nearly the fanfare or pizzazz of Bobby’s solo effort or even BBD’s album, though it did top the R&B charts and hit 20 on the pop charts.
Ralph just isn’t the same type of artist as those others. It turns out he’s a great lead for New Edition, but solo, something just wasn’t as ... awesome. And it wasn’t for lack of star-power writing and production. He had Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the architects of the classic New Edition album Heart Break, and had other well-known producers at the time as well, including L.A. Reid and Babyface, the architects of Bobby’s solo album.
Here’s an important question: If Ralph Tresvant had Bobby’s Don’t Be Cruel album, would it have been as big? While we may truly never know, I think the answer is simple: No. While “My Prerogative” was largely personal, the rest of that album could have been given to anybody. But only Bobby Brown had the ability to execute and perform those songs and craft the iconic videos that propelled it and him to international success and stardom.
Bobby Brown Bobby’d the shit out of that album. I think in the case of Bobby, the “it” factor was the determining factor. Only a swagged-out Bobby could sing those songs the way he did and perform them how he did. He isn’t the best singer in the world, but as a dancer, he put in major work. He had his signature sounds and moves and it created this package that just ... worked.
Don’t Be Cruel was the vehicle that sent Bobby to the moon, but was it just going to come because Bobby being Bobby was meant for it? I don’t know. Nothing Bobby did post-Don’t Be Cruel came close to the success of that album. Possibly all of the negative attention and press he received, plus marrying America’s darling Whitney Houston and people feeling like he corrupted her, played into folks taking a timeout on him. The music on his next project, Bobby, was just as good, though I can’t say it was genre shifting like Don’t Be Cruel was. It also came out a whole four years later—music was different; hip-hop was more prevalent. It was a different time.
The same question could be asked for any number of artists: Are they destined for greatness or does greatness land on them once the right folks usher them into it? Rihanna is another artist like that. Rihanna is an international superstar with “it” and a string of hits. But her albums are also heavily curated in music camps where they bring in the best writers and producers and craft songs for her. Except almost nobody could pull off the songs she sings.
“Umbrella” was shopped to Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears before it landed on Rihanna ... and well, she took that thing straight outta here. Would Mary have done it the same justice? I don’t know, but I think it would feel different. Different artists bring different things to the table. Rihanna is one where the intangible is the driving force; she just happens to be awesome in the process, so we love her all the same.
Would Jay-Z be Jay without “Hard Knock Life”? I don’t know—the song opened him up to an entirely new audience, but the song itself was as hip-hop as you could get. There was no compromise. If we never get “My Girl” from the Temptations, do we ever get “Just My Imagination” or “Ball of Confusion”? These artists are vessels, sure, but what they bring to the table in personality and performance is the X factor.
Michael Jackson had solo albums before Off the Wall and was clearly a prodigy. If you listen to any of the Jackson albums on Epic, you see where Mike was headed. Then he got with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton and they crafted albums that played specifically to his strengths, and voilà, Michael Jackson becomes the biggest thing on the planet. Foster Sylvers couldn’t have done that. Nor could Ray Parker Jr. with the same material. The internal greatness of those artists cannot be stressed enough. Sometimes you just need the right material to make it clear. Eminem before Dre was just a talented lyricist. After? He’s Eminem. Could anybody else deliver Usher’s Confessions album? No.
So did Bobby make Don’t Be Cruel or did Don’t Be Cruel make Bobby? I’m in the former camp. Bobby Brown was so great that it was just a matter of the right material that enabled him to be his full self.
Bobby’s “it” factor took him to the moon and back; Don’t Be Cruel was the spaceship.