Greg Simms on Generation X’s defining R&B album.
Deadbeat. Drug addict. Has been. Whitney’s anchor. These are the words many people in 2013 would use to describe the 44 year old Bobby Brown. He’s reportedly clean now, but the years of rampant drug use have visibly ravaged the singer. Publicity-wise, Brown is a cautionary tale and, in the eyes of many, one of the main reasons for Whitney Houston’s tragic downfall. That’s what makes the following adjectives so stunning:
Sexy. Revolutionary. Hot. Fun. Fresh. New.
These were the compliments bestowed upon Brown back in the summer of 1988, when he dropped his classic album, Don’t Be Cruel. It’s hard to remember, but back then Brown was one of the biggest pop stars in music. He was white hot, and he seemed to have a very bright future. We all know what happened with and to Brown in the ensuing years. But, for a moment, Bob was the shit. For Gen X, here’s a trip down memory lane. For the millennials, class is in session.
In the summer of 1988, the hot R&B news wasn’t the news of Brown dropping his second solo album. It was New Edition. The big story in young black neighborhoods was that the band had hooked up with super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Just two years prior, the pair produced an album for Janet Jackson that, well, shook up the world. Jam and Lewis took a young woman struggling with identity issues and turned her into an adult mega-star. The hope among young music fans was that the producers could do the same for New Edition: take the former bubblegum pop boys, and turn them into the new Temptations.
It seemed as though New Edition would rule black radio alone when their single, “If it Isn’t Love,” was released. It exploded on urban and pop formats, and the album that it came from, Heartbreak, seemed poised to become the biggest R&B album of the year.
The only problem was, Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel was released on the same day.
Bobby Brown was an original member of New Edition. For reasons that still seem muddy to this day (Brown says he was voted out, but he was leaving anyway; New Edition says they just straight up voted him out, Brown has also said he wanted more money than N.E. was getting as a group, etc.), Bobby Brown left the group. He released his first solo album, King of Stage, in 1986, but it flopped. By 1988, Brown was a forgotten man in R&B.
But, by ’88, he reemerged with both the Cruel album and the debut single of the same name, which became a monster hit. It was the funkiest kiss-off song made in years (if it was released today, it would probably be titled “Bitch!”), and one of the most innovative, with its extended rapping between the hook. Most importantly, the song bounced off the walls. You could turn up the song in your car or your room as loud as you did your rap records.
Still, nobody was ready for what came next. In the fall of ’88, Bobby dropped the second release from the Cruel album, the single “My Prerogative.” It wasn’t a hit. It wasn’t a smash. It wasn’t popular.
It was a game changer.
“My Prerogative” was a strutting, pimp walking, dick grab of a song. It was the FUBU (For Us By Us) of Generation X R&B. The song’s producer, Teddy Riley, was in his early twenties. Bobby Brown was 19. To keep it real, Gen X really hadn’t repped in black radio at all. Prince and Michael Jackson, who both turned 30 in 1988, were baby boomers. New Edition had been around since 1983, but they sang boomer produced songs with short rap verses thrown in. They weren’t really representing the views and lives of Gen X.
But “Prerogative” kicked down the door and screamed in your face. This was Bobby and Teddy dancing in your living room and humping your furniture. The drums in R&B hadn’t been turned up that loud, ever; well, they were on Riley’s other production masterpiece, Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever,” but that’s another article. “My Prerogative” was one of those “remember where you were” songs, a seismic culture shifter like D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” or Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her” that made a certain section of pop culture turn on a dime. Black rhythm and blues hadn’t sounded that young since the Motown/Stax era.
“Roni” was damn near as revolutionary as “My Prerogative” because it was a ballad with a rap verse as the bridge. Luther Vandross wasn’t rolling like that. The remix of “Every Little Step” was simply hard as hell, inventive, and revolutionary, due to its infamous “My name is Brrooowwwn” rap breakdown (and that turned up video). Besides Rick James and Prince, it had been a while since an R&B singer talked shit.
I dropped “revolutionary” several times throughout this piece because in 1988, what Brown did was revolutionary. Young R&B /hip-hop hybrid singers are the norm these days—Chris Brown, Usher, Ne-Yo, etc.—but, in ’88, that didn’t exist. Singers sung and rappers rapped. When Don’t Be Cruel hit, Brown melded the two forms of music into one. He (with the help of Riley and super producers in their own right LA and Babyface) hit the reset button on R&B, and made it fresh for a new generation.
Brown himself was something new. He was an R&B singer who could sing a ballad while rocking a dookie-roped gold chain and a Gumby haircut. He was dark-skinned, and he gave off a strong, macho vibe. Prince and MJ played the sexuality and race game throughout their careers, but as much as black people loved the two men it was really hard to identify with them. With Brown, that wasn’t the case. The clothes he wore were the clothes young black males could wear at a nightclub. The dance moves he showed off were moves all Gen X kids had seen at parties. Brown was Generation X’s first fully realized superstar.
It’s hard to reminisce about the Don’t Be Cruel campaign and not get sad. In a fair universe, Brown would have released the follow up to Don’t Be Cruel in 1990 or late 1991, and gone on to have been Usher and R. Kelly before Usher and R. Kelly. Instead, Brown released the Bobby album in late 1992, when Bobby’s brand of R&B wasn’t that cool any longer. In fact, the Bobby album got buried by the debut album of another young, ghetto-reared, hip-hop flavored R&B singer: Mary J. Blige. Arguably, What’s The 411? was the album Bobby should have been.
The indignities didn’t stop there. Usher, while in his own right a very talented artist, took a huge page from the Bobby Brown playbook to sell his second album, My Way. (Just like Brown’s first album, Usher’s first album was a flop as well). In fact, I could argue Usher took not just a page but entire pages from the Brown playbook during the My Way run. If anything, instead of Usher being the next Michael Jackson, as he was marketed for a time, he really is Bobby without the destructive habits.
Bobby is now middle aged, and seems to be doing all right. He’s been touring with New Edition, and he’s now getting ready to go back out on tour with the Heads of State crew (Bobby, Ralph Tresvant, and Johnny Gill). He’s no longer the star he once was, nor the superstar he could have been, but he paved the way for a legion of Gen X and Millennial R&B singers.
Without Don’t Be Cruel there wouldn’t have been a 12 Play, a Confessions, or even a My Life. You can argue with that point if you want. It’s your Prerogative.