1. Cruel Prelude // 2. Don’t Be Cruel // 3. My Prerogative // 4. Roni // 5. Rock Wit’cha // 6. Every Little Step // 7. I’ll Be Good to You // 8. Take It Slow // 9. All Day All Night //10. I Really Love You Girl // 11. Cruel Reprise
Bobby Brown was once more than an ex-New Edition member and Whitney Houston’s ex-hubby (a faulty marriage well documented because Brown and Houston are ex-reality tv. stars as well as recording artists).
He was at one point R&B’s brightest young star as well as the archetypical boy band bad boy, that point was following the release of his sophomore album Don’t Be Cruel. When Robbie Williams gave Take That and Nigel Martin-Smith the finger to find bigger success solo than the group had ever had collectively he was basically following Bob’s career trajectory. When Donnie Wahlberg tried to set fire to a hotel with a Molotov cocktail… well I don’t think Bobby ever did something that fucked up, but the man has had plenty of lewd and laviscous content, driving under influence, police chase, resisting arrest and drug posession arrests on his name as well as the public image of a crackhead wifebeater. To each former teen heartthrob his own way of shedding the bubblegum pop image. Word to Justin Bieber.
Don’t Be Cruel was released at the height of the New Jack Swing era which supposedly blends old-fashioned R&B soul with old school hip-hop although acts like Guy, Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat are simply soul singers with more electronic production than was usual in the ’80s backing them in my book with little to no hip-hop influences being noticeable, but that is just my opinion so you can ignore that if you want to.
Brown however did blur the line between soul and hip-hop rapping as much as he sings on the title track and doing an LL Cool J-esque rap on the ballad Roni and busting out a verse at the end of the video edit of Every Little Step adding hip-hop swagger to his rhythm and blues.
The producers involved L.A. Reid, Babyface and Teddy Riley had all had moderate success in the music business before Cruel (Teddy working on all those Uptown records and L.A. and Face as in-house producers for Dick Griffey’s SOLAR records.) but were to completely own mainstream contemporary R&B in the decade that was to follow this album’s release. It’s not difficult to see why, their work on this album is excellent. One could say that they kickstarted the ’90s with this and it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement.
If the first five songs following the intro aren’t the best five-song-run on an R&B album ever they’re up there with the best of them. From the title track’s slinky, sinister funk through My Prerogative‘s brassy middle-fingerfest. Roni‘s B-boy romanticism, Rock Wit’cha‘s more mature sexy business and Every Little Step‘s puppy love and pop ‘n’ lock groove. This is some terrific music making, with Bob’s charismatically gruff Rick James/James Brown-ish tenor locking tightly into the groove of the somersaulting drum machine clatter. He isn’t the best technical singer out there, having a rather limited vocal range, but he knows well how to stay in it while at the same time making full use of everything he’s got and is a born entertainer. What’s more is that his sense of rhythm is excellent and he appears to really enjoy singing these catchy songs with a natural charisma that allows him to come across as both badass and as a fun individual, a loveable rascal. It is one rather engaging, catchy affair. These songs were all in the top three of the US R&B charts, in the top ten of the US pop charts with three of them hitting #1 in the former and one, namely My Prerogative, hitting #1 on the latter and copping a Grammy. And well deserved.
If this album consisted of only these five songs Don’t Be Cruel would be a perfect ten. Following them however are four well meaning but forgettable cuts. I’ll Be Good to You is standard fare late-’80s Teddy Riley-funk. It’s not bad but it absolutely pales in comparison to his other contribution My Prerogative, the album’s biggest pop-hit and a Grammy winner. (A little bit of trivia: Boy George’s 1989 Teddy Riley-produced, hit-single Don’t Take My Mind On a Trip was originally slated to appear on Don’t Be Cruel. It’s easy to imagine Bobby perform it. I would love to hear Bob’s version if any of you readers has it on a hard drive somewhere.) And closing the album are three rather forgettable slow jams Bob himself co-produced with Cameo-frontman and King of Stage-producer Larry White that require more technical singing than Bob has to offer to bring them to life.
In short Don’t Be Cruel has a fan-fucking-tastic opening run but slightly falls apart at the end. But overall it still is a really good but somewhat forgotten album that packs more hits and more punch than you can shake a stick at and proving just why he was a thing once. It is the best New Edition album, solo or otherwise. For that it derserves to be aknowledged and revisited.
Don’t Be Cruel
Every Little Step
Pick this up.