Bobby Brown was a textbook example of the boyband bad boy. Before Donnie Wahlberg, Robbie Williams and Brian Harvey, Brown spicily non-conformed in New Edition, the band he had co-founded when he was nine years old.
Three years after their biggest hit, 1983’s Candy Girl, Brown released his debut solo album, King of Stage. It was a solid, if unremarkable, album and although it spawned a US R&B No.1 with Girlfriend, it had no lasting success. Brown, an artist with a considerable ego, wanted more. And he certainly achieved it with his second album, Don’t Be Cruel.
With L.A. Reid and Babyface producing and Teddy Riley mixing, Don’t Be Cruel is a perfect time capsule of what new jack swing, the bright, clattering fusion of R&B and hip hop, sounded like.
With the album’s choral introduction, Brown elevated himself beyond the realms of the boyband he’d escaped from. This was producers and artist working closely together to create something for the audience who had grown up with Brown.
The title track, a big hit in its radio edit, is the lengthy seven-and-a-half minute album opener that introduces Brown as a cross between Alexander O’Neal and Prince. It takes the R&B love song and updates it perfectly.
The album then follows a path of super-soppy ballads and hard-hitting funk. The flinty, bad-tempered super hit, My Prerogative, became Brown’s signature song, topping the US charts and hitting the UK top 10.
Don’t Be Cruel often sounds like a demonstration recording for the latest technology of 1988, and it is left to the listener to wonder what the classic soul of a song like Roni might have sounded like if it had been recorded a decade or so earlier.
Show-stopping ballad Take It Slow sounds not unlike a high-period Whitney Houston tearjerker. It’s good to hear the rigidity of the drum programs stopping for a moment, which remains this album’s biggest anachronism in the 21st century.
New jack swing’s relentless, thundering beat just hasn’t aged well. But the songs on Don’t Be Cruel are great, and this was premium R&B delivered with all the swagger, sincerity and braggadocio commensurate with Brown’s notoriety.
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