As a black man of a certain age, New Edition maybe means more to me than they do to the average person. They were role models in an age right before hip-hop went mainstream. As a pre-teen, they were the only role models of color in my age range (in addition to the Cosby Show kids) who weren’t freaks of nature like Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis. Five (or six, or four) average kids from Boston (and D.C., once Johnny Gill joined in 1987), they were as talented as they were relatable.
And thirty-five years later, they’re still in the pop culture conversation, even though I’d classify them as almost criminally underrated (at least as far as influence goes). Think about the boy band/vocal group explosion of the late ’90s/early ’00s. The groups that spearheaded those movements-New Kids On The Block and Boyz II Men-literally would not have existed had it not been for New Edition (Maurice Starr put the former group together after New Edition left him for a major label, while BIIM was discovered by N.E.’s Mike Bivins and were named after the closing track on New Edition’s Heart Break album.) From that well comes ‘Nsync (and Justin Timberlake), The Backstreet Boys, Jodeci, Dru Hill, Color Me Badd, B2K and more. Even girl groups like TLC and SWV were put together as a response to the commercial dominance of New Edition spinoff group Bell Biv DeVoe, paving the way for acts like Mary J. Blige and Beyonce.
Then there’s the fact that N.E. essentially discovered the fusion of hip-hop and R&B. 1983’s “Candy Girl” was the first #1 R&B hit to successfully fuse singing and rhyming (let’s just leave “Double Dutch Bus” out of this conversation). As solo acts, Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe firmed the union of those two once fairly disparate genres. The sound of pop radio circa 2017 owes more to New Edition than it does to, say, vaunted (and justifiably so–no shade at all) pop/rock icons like Bruce Springsteen and U2. And adult R&B radio knows what’s up. Not only do N.E. classics still get burn, but Johnny Gill (with an assist from the rest of the group) hit the top of that radio chart less than a year ago with “This One’s For Me And You”, while BBD’s “Run” is a top ten record at that format.
So, in celebration of their well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the miniseries airing on BET that tells their story, here’s a list of 20 classic songs from Ronnie, Ricky, Mike and Ralph (with Johnny and Bobby on occasion). I’ll arrange their solo hits in another list. This one’s for the mothership.
*-a completely subjective list
1) “Can You Stand The Rain” (from Heart Break, 1988)
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis saved New Edition’s career. Fresh off the success of Janet Jackson’s adult breakthrough Control, they were enlisted to assist New Edition’s transition from kiddie group to musically substantial grown-ups. They also had to find a way to seamlessly integrate new member Johnny Gill (already an established solo artist) into the unit. So: songwriters, producers, musicians, psychiatrists? Big shoes to fill. Jimmy & Terry (and the group themselves) ultimately made it work with 1988’s Heart Break. Even though “Can You Stand The Rain” wasn’t the album’s biggest pop hit, it is arguably New Edition’s best-known (and most-loved) song amongst the group’s core fan base. The song should be a standard-perfectly written, arranged and performed. Ralph’s boyish tenor meshes perfectly with Johnny’s chesty baritone, and…let’s just say there aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to properly do this song justice.
2) “If It Isn’t Love” (from Heart Break)
An instance in which a video makes a great song iconic. I’m still trying to master this choreography.
3) “A Little Bit Of Love (Is All It Takes)” (from All For Love, 1985)
4) “Helplessly In Love” (from Dragnet: Music From The Original Motion Picture, 1987)
N.E.’s first song with Jam & Lewis at the helm, from 1987’s otherwise forgettable Dragnet soundtrack. Yes, it sounds a LOT like The Force M.D.’s “Tender Love”, which Jam & Lewis also wrote and produced. Ralph’s boyish, wistful delivery sets the song apart from its predecessor.
5) “Crucial” (from “Crucial” 7″ single, 1989)
An early example of a remix completely murking the original version of a song.
6) “Home Again” (from Home Again, 1996)
As potent a song of brotherhood-black brotherhood-as has ever been performed. “Home Again” gives me all the feels.
7) “Is This The End?” (from Candy Girl, 1983)
8) “I’m Comin’ Home” (from Heart Break)
Johnny Gill’s giving us a little Michael McDonald at the end of this one.
9) “Once In A Lifetime Groove” (from Running Scared: Music From The Original Motion Picture, 1986)
While New Edition was busy exploring the classics of the ’50s and ’60s on the cheesy Under The Blue Moon (an album that threatened to derail their career), “Once In A Lifetime Groove” was released to ensure their fan base that they hadn’t completely sold out or jumped the shark.
10) “Mr. Telephone Man” (from New Edition, 1984)
I’m trying to imagine a kid listening to this song in 2017, being like “I don’t understand…” Technology.
11) “Newness” (from One Love, 2004)
New Edition’s 2004 album One Love (their single release on Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy label) was kind of a mess. Puffy assigned his B-team to the songwriting and production (and Puffy’s A-team wasn’t that great to begin with) and essentially tried to turn New Edition into 112 (themselves a third-generation carbon copy of N.E.). It wasn’t a good fit, and the two best songs on the album were supplied (naturally) by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. This is one. The song at #19 is another. Grab those and the excellent single “Hot 2Nite” (which just missed the cut) and you have all you need from One Love.
12) “Something About You” (from Home Again)
Take a shop-worn sample (the same Edie Brickell loop Brand Nubian used on “Slow Down”), dub your concoction “country-western funk”, add in a breathless Ralph Tresvant vocal, stick in some frenzied Bobby ad-libs, and a song that should’ve been a smash is born.
13) Word To The Mutha! (from Bell Biv Devoe’s WBBD Bootcity-The Remix Album, 1991)
At the height of BBD’s success, they released a remix album (as just about everyone who was anyone did in the late ’80s and early ’90s). On the song’s original version (included on 1990’s Poison), the title mentioned the names of all six members. For the remix, BBD switched over to the parenthetical title and added Ralph, Bobby and Johnny to the actual song. It was the first track to feature all six current and former New Edition members, was a radio hit despite never being released as a single, and holds up well despite the Herculean effort of trying to fit six outsize personalities at the height of their success into one cohesive song. Biggest surprise-Ralph can rhyme a little somethin’!
14) “You’re Not My Kind Of Girl” (from Heart Break)
The smoothest friend-zoning ever, male group division.
15) “Cool It Now” (from New Edition)
16) “Candy Girl” (from Candy Girl)
I haven’t written a whole lot about the Candy Girl-era songs included on this list. I guess I’m trying to determine if nostalgia is the reason I feel like these songs hold up better than most kiddie-pop or if they’re really that damn good. I’m leaning towards Option B.
17) “Count Me Out” (from All For Love)
18) “I’m Still In Love With You” (from Home Again)
19) “Re-Write The Memories” (from One Love)
This song and “Something About You” (#12) both quote Ralph’s solo hit “Sensitivity” (also produced by Jam & Lewis). Someone in that camp REALLY likes “Sensitivity”.
20) “I’m Leaving You Again” (from New Edition)
This was a HUGE urban radio hit as an album track in 1984-1985 (at least in Detroit, where I was living at the time). Later sampled by Jermaine Dupri for Bow Wow’s top 10 pop hit “Like You”. Also–I believe this was the first song in which members of the group received writing credit. Not bad for teenagers, eh?