In Review: Don’t Be Cruel

“I really love my girl” Bobby Brown croons on a track titled, “I Really Love You Girl.” It’s ballads like this that unravel the genius of Brown’s 1988 classic, Don’t Be Cruel. It’s the last song on the 11-track album, minus a “reprise” of the song of the album’s title. It’s the song sung significantly in a deeper tone, so you furthermore know that this type of ballad is an authentic representation of a mature singer and his presentation of a mature recording.

In 1988 — exactly 30 years ago — Bobby Brown was just 19 years old and coming off mild success of a debut album confidently titled, King of Stage, released just two years prior. This means a couple of things: It is indeed the 30th anniversary of Don’t Be Cruel, but it feels like the year 1988 and we are just discovering the sounds of a brand new classic. Also, because of its commercial success then — due in part to Bobby’s newfound youth and charisma from going solo after disbanding from the group New Edition that he co-founded at 9 years old and in part to his overwhelming talent — we continue to talk about it and celebrate it today. By talking about it, I mean listen to it and review it because listening to it, even if on vinyl or cassette, isn’t enough.

Bobby Brown, who right now is not even 50 yet at just 49 years old and is on a nationwide tour with New Edition bandmates as a part of a new group RBRM, has another accolade this year. That’s his own biopic, “The Bobby Brown Story” featuring a vivid story of his life and career and an array of actors and actresses playing the parts of some of the most important people in his story. For super fans of Bobby Brown like me, it’s reminiscent of VH1’s very good Behind the Music episode on Brown, or his 2005 reality show, Being Bobby Brown. The biopic, for which also deserves a review, in many ways mirrors his early success of Don’t Be Cruel and possibly, probably, matter-of-factly should’ve been titled, Don’t Be Cruel: The Bobby Brown Story. The story attempts to restore his public image as a man and reimagine him as a musical persona, and it succeeds because we have done nothing but talk about Bobby Brown and his life and career the whole year. After seeing the film, you’ll want to continue to talk about the man and the music just as we did 30 years ago when the singer dropped the biggest selling album of 1989 and one of the greatest albums of all time. Notwithstanding all of the bad boy behavior that comes with his level of success, thus has happened in-between.

It’s a good thing to talk about Bobby Brown and his career. About how his television appearances are true depictions of a true artist and man. About how they’re often firsts of many feature-length projects. But especially about how Bobby is truly, first and foremost, a dynamic artist. Let’s talk about how Bobby Brown is truly, first and foremost, a dynamic artist. About how Bobby Brown was a human unicorn in this music industry utopia. About how he founded this utopia and populated other unicorns in it while at the same time remaining atop his game amongst the likes of ‘80s peers Michael Jackson and Prince. For a 19 year old singer with funky clothes and a funky haircut, and whose dance moves are smoother than MJ’s, vocal style unmatched since the likes of his childhood idol James Brown, and stage presence akin to the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Brown’s entrance into the industry couldn’t have come at a better time or in a better way. This sums up the commercial appeal of Bobby Brown and his offering of the R&B-tuned Don’t Be Cruel. Don’t Be Cruel in so many ways is Bobby’s Thriller, or R&B’s Thriller. It is basically everything post-Michael. But it is also pre-today’s realm of modern pop and R&B. This is where Bobby Brown fits in being for the new kids, but also for the musically experienced group. 

Pull out the original vinyl or cassette, or go buy a new one. Make the Spotify playlist. Add it to the itunes library. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the music which defined a genre and inspired an entire era. From beginning to end, the classic is filled with popular tracks and some non-single, yet equally musically-inclined tunes produced by super producers L.A. Reid, Babyface, and new jack swing pioneer, Teddy Riley.

The nostalgia is hard to resist while remembering the success of “My Prerogative” — the album’s lead single and Bobby’s most notable song. Something happened in the industry when “My Prerogative” was released. Bobby’s tone over an edgy guitar gave him the perfect mix between the popish, yet mature sound he’d been searching for and gave the industry the perfect mix between the popish, yet mature sound they’d been searching for. The track is filled with the kind of lyrics, beat, and attitude which became the inspiration behind the “bad boy of R&B” — if not the “king of R&B” — moniker that has followed him his entire career. 

Or the nostalgia while singing the lyrics to “Roni,” which are unforgettable to most live audiences today because of its melodic beat and romantic lyrics. The song makes a huge impression on the album as a sweet and soft tune. It offers the kind of R&B expected of a new and young singer attempting to stand out himself from crowds and perhaps, sing to a young woman, or perhaps, a female fan for whom he affectionately calls, ‘Roni.’ The truth about Roni is she’s a sweet girl, and also that a hit singer sings about her on his hit song on his hit album.

What soothes the nostalgia is that the songs are full of authentic rhythm and blues that make you listen to the lyrics, the beats, and everything that goes into music and not so much the activity behind the scenes that Bobby Brown’s bad boy image can make a distraction from the music. Songs like “Every Little Step” is a unique stereo sound of Bobby singing atop it, and the song came accompanied by a video featuring Brown’s original choreography. It’s not hard to figure out why this song earned him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance or how it landed him on pretty much every stage there is.

Then there’s “Rock Wit’cha,” the leading ballad on the album and on R&B playlists. The song showcases Bobby’s sensual poweress and doesn’t shy away from moving the album from bouncy pop tunes to a straight-up slow groove. With a slow song that references Marvin Gaye, Bobby’s tone slows down and he shows off his vocal range. 

Each of these four singles naturally appear back to back on the album. The perfection of Don’t Be Cruel is in this fact that so many songs were smash hits by statistic and musical standards. Whether track by track or in totality, Don’t Be Cruel showcases musical expertise. It isn’t difficult to accept the album or Brown as a blueprint for either the 80s, R&B, or music period. The hits have another distinction in that they are surrounded by other pop-fueled songs and romantic ballads, one of which is the title track and was actually the first single and my favorite song, “Don’t Be Cruel,” which kicks off the album in prelude and full length. And of course it does, because the song represents the totality of the album: an edgy tune with Bobby singing, rapping, and telling a girl “don’t be cruel” in hopes of taking her out and not being rejected.

The upbeat “I’ll Be Good To You” offers more of Bobby’s dance and sing style. It sounds like “Every Little Step,” except in true Bobby Brown fashion — it’s a track above and a step above on the edge as Bobby makes the old promise, “I’ll be good to you, girl.” It’s understandable as a gem on the album and not a released single.

Meanwhile, both slow jams “Take It Slow” and “All Day All Night,” serve as extensions to the “Rock Wit’Cha” sound, stretching the album’s slow groove. Don’t even try deciding which you like better between the two, as “Take It Slow” has an oldies jam horn blowing that really takes it slow and “All Day All Night” has Bobby oozing “Ooh.”

And of course, Bobby scores the album with “I Really Love You Girl.” The beginning of the song sounds like a perfect chorus of young voices saying “yeah,” or of course, a group of background singers following Bobby’s lead vocals, and he follows up with a, “Yeah, baby.” It is such a good song that it not only sounds like a dedication to the girl he’s been singing about in all the other songs, but as the final song, it sounds like a dedication to all of his female fans. It’s somewhat of a singalong, and won’t hesitate to rearrange the lyrics to, “I really love you, Bobby Brown.”

It’s easy to keep listening straight through just as any album is supposed to accomplish, but even better because Don’t Be Cruel offers you favorites that you want to put on repeat. The songs inhibit the same recipes for beats and lyrics, and all of these elements complete a second release for an artist seeking the throne of his genre and place in music.

What this album means today — for a fan and for a music critic — is what it meant 30 years ago. The significance of Bobby Brown’s presence — his voice, his dance, his performance, his hair, his clothes, and his attitude about it all — means sometimes revisiting an album or a two-night movie premiere. The significance is the sound of Bobby Brown and an entire sound of music for which he alone inspired. It is the sound of music. It is the meaning of music. It is music.

 


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