The year is 2017. Bell Biv DeVoe’s latest album debuted in the top ten of the pop charts, New Edition finds themselves with an album in the top 40, and NO ONE HAD TO DIE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN! I’d say this is cause for celebration.
There are two instances I can think of in music history where each of the individual members of a group or band went on to solo success. One is New Edition. The other? The Beatles. However, the phenomenon of multiple splinter acts becoming more successful than the band itself is unique to N.E., as Bobby Brown and BBD’s stars at times burned brighter than that of the mothership.
Below, you’ll find a ranking of my favorite joints from Bobby and BBD, Johnny and Ralph. Yeah, I lean hard on their late ’80s/early ’90s glory period (it’s when they released their best material), but its certainly worth mentioning that Johnny’s last couple of albums have been solid, and while there are plenty of eye-rolling “stop that” moments, BBD’s Three Stripes album finds the trio making better music as they approach 50 than they did when they were in their early 30s (2001’s BBD) and is arguably better than the album they made in their mid 20s (1993’s Hootie Mack). Scroll down for a Spotify playlist featuring the thirty songs featured here (in the versions they should be heard! Howbahdah??)
1) Poison (from Poison, 1990)*
The first time “Poison” came into my consciousness, I was sitting at home, watching Video Music Box, the legendary NYC-based clip show that formed much of my early musical tastes. If memory serves, I’d glossed over the announcement of the artists’ names. I might’ve been preoccupied with breakfast or babysitting or something like that. I don’t think I realized that the guys performing the song were the “other three” guys from New Edition until halfway through the video, and I was gobsmacked.
Hip-hop and R&B were in the process of forging an alliance, but there was already a lengthy history of the two genres eyeing each other suspiciously from across the room. “Poison” is the first instance I recall of legit singing over hardcore breakbeats. There was nothing soft or glossy about it, the music wasn’t a capitulation to R&B the way so much new jack swing was. “Poison” has become as iconic as it is because it signaled a sea change in American music. And it remains an iconic track-capable of setting parties off and turning up karaoke bars nationwide even despite lyrical content that, in retrospect, one might view as “problematic” in these “woke” times.
2) Something In Your Eyes (from Hootie Mack, 1993)*
When it came time for BBD to record album #2, the trio fell victim to a few things: egos run amok, certain members not being fully invested, the regrettable decision to follow in Dr. Dre’s Chronic-scented footsteps and make a semi-concept album about weed. Somewhere in that mess, someone had the good sense to include a smoldering slow jam called “Something In Your Eyes”. Composed by Babyface and featuring vocals from only Ricky Bell, the song became a Top 10 R&B hit, poked around in the lower reaches of the pop top 40 (during a stellar time for erotic R&B ballads), and is practically guaranteed to cause feverish groping and possibly the removal of undergarments. As sexy as BBD (and ‘Face, for that matter) ever got.
3) Don’t Be Cruel (from Don’t Be Cruel, 1988)**
“Don’t Be Cruel” was the first track to seamlessly integrate rap and R&B, and as happens often with songs that signal a commercial or artistic breakthrough, is often forgotten in favor of the bigger (and not as good) song that succeeded it. You may notice, if you scroll down, that “My Prerogative” does not appear on this list.
4) On Our Own (from the Ghostbusters 2 Original Soundtrack, 1989)**
5) Do Me! (from the 12″ single, 1990)*
Speaking of “problematic”. Holy shit, how did lyrics like this get on Top 40 radio?!? I just try to ignore the first part of Ron DeVoe’s rap verse when listening to this.
6) She’s Dope (EPOD Mix) (from WBBD Bootcity-The Remix Album, 1991)*
As often happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s, R&B and dance singles were remixed heavily for radio play. “Dope” was given a makeover by hip-hop legend Marley Marl, and the result was infinitely better than the radio version.
7) My, My, My (from Johnny Gill, 1990)***
A stellar Babyface bedroom ballad, in which Johnny is assisted by After 7 (who perform background vocal duties) and Kenny G (who adds sax flourishes throughout the song). He didn’t need help from either. On another note, I unwisely decided to sing this at karaoke one night and completely shredded my throat. Alcohol often results in some dumb decisions being made, in case you’re unaware.
8) Rub You The Right Way (from Johnny Gill)***
9) Rock Wit’cha (from the 12″ single, 1989)**
10) Good Enough (from the maxi-single, 1992)**
Listen in closely to hear Whitney adding her signature voice to the chorus vocals on this one.
11) One More Night (from Bobby, 1992)**
12) Maybe (from Let’s Get The Mood Right, 1996)***
I’ve realized that my favorite JG songs contain some of his most passionate (some might say “unhinged”) vocal performances. This is one. Check the end of the song for a series of ridiculous key changes.
13) Sensitivity (from Ralph Tresvant, 1990)****
14) Every Little Step (from the cassette single, 1989)**
15) Word To The Mutha! (from WBBD Bootcity-The Remix Album)*
When is a Bell Biv DeVoe song also a New Edition song? (see: my New Edition list for more info)
16) Half-Crazy (from Chemistry, 1985)***
Johnny recorded three albums before joining New Edition, and this dramatic piano ballad was his biggest solo hit up until that point. Hard to believe that a performance like this came from a teenager, but…
17) Giving My All To You (from Johnny Gill)***
18) Money Can’t Buy You Love (from the Mo’ Money Original Soundtrack, 1992)****
19) I’m Still Waiting (from the New Jack City Soundtrack, 1991)***
20) There U Go (from the Boomerang Soundtrack, 1992)***
The fellas had no qualms about dropping gems on movie soundtracks, as evidenced by the fact that three of the four N.E. splinter acts have cuts on this list originating from movies. One song that doesn’t make the cut? “The Best Things In Life Are Free” by Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson (featuring BBD and Ralph). The Mo’ Money track is great, sure. But I’d actually say that the mid-song rap verse from Biv, Defoe and Tresvant (Bell doesn’t appear) feels unnecessarily shoehorned in. When your inclusion on a song makes the song worse, I’d argue that it’s not your essential work.
21) Pretty Little Girl (from Bobby)
A reggae-spiced jam from Don’t Be Cruel’s unfairly maligned follow-up. Bobby is a bit too long, but the songs hold up better, Bobby’s singing is MUCH better, and it wasn’t a flop, selling nearly three million copies. This Babyface-penned song also features vocals from Ricky Bell, making it one of several mini-N.E. reunions in the years between Heart Break and Home Again.
22) When Will I See You Smile Again? (from the single, 1990)*
23) My Side Of The Bed (from LeVert*Sweat*Gill, 1997)*****
Johnny Gill has hit the R&B top ten as a solo artist, as a member of a duo (with Stacy Lattisaw), a member of a trio (LSG found him joining forces with fellow slow-jam titans Gerald LeVert and Keith Sweat), a quintet (Heart Break-era N.E.) and a sextet (Home Again-era N.E.). I don’t know that anyone matches that. Talk about versatile. “My Side Of The Bed” is the first LSG album’s most essential cut, with all three vocalists in prime begging form.)
24) Perfect Combination (from Perfect Combination, 1984)******
The shoulda-been prom hit of 1984 from childhood sweethearts Stacy Lattisaw (the reigning teen R&B singer of the early ’80s) and Gill, who was a fresh-faced newbie.
25) Lady Dujour (from Johnny Gill)***
26) Please Come Back (from Hootie Mack)*
27) Block Party (from Perfect Combination)******
28) Wrap My Body Tight (from Johnny Gill)***
29) When I Need Somebody (from It’s Goin’ Down, 1993)****
Ralph’s first solo album was a successful affair, but 1994’s It’s Goin’ Down fell flat. Much like his comrades in BBD, Tresvant tried to adopt a persona that didn’t exactly fit well (in this case, that of a pimp-like character). Tresvant also adopted a more heads-on role in the creation of the music, writing and producing the majority of It’s Goin’ Down. The most memorable track on the album was written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, suggesting that maybe Ralph should’ve left well enough alone.
30) Gangsta (from the single, 1992)*
What was originally touted as the lead single from Hootie Mack ended up predating the album by a year and was ultimately left off the track listing. The reasoning behind that decision has never been made clear, but “Gangsta” (which peaked in the top 20 on the pop and R&B charts) is qualitatively superior to every song on BBD’s sophomore effort (bar one) and stands up well when compared to most of Poison. Fairly inventive production and an interesting lyrical conceit (almost the antithesis of “Poison”) pointed the way to a strong follow-up by the trio. Too bad it was never realized.
*-Bell Biv DeVoe
*****-LSG (Gerald LeVert, Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill)
******-Stacy Lattisaw & Johnny Gill