June 20, 1988
MCA Records/ UMG
1. Introduction // 2. That’s the Way We’re Livin’ // 3. Where It All Started // 4. If It Isn’t Love // 5. Skit #1 // 6. N.E. Heart Break // 7. Crucial // 8. Skit #2 // 9. You’re Not My Kind of Girl // 10. Superlady // 11. Can You Stand the Rain // 12. Competition // 13. Skit #3 // 14. I’m Comin’ Home // 15, Boys to Men
When Bobby Brown kicked himself out of New Edition he took their collective nutsack with him if Under the Blue Moon and King of Stage were indicative.
In the mean time Johnny Gill’s career wasn’t really going places despite evident talent. His first two solo-albums and the collaborative album with Stacey Lattisaw hadn’t made him the star Cotillon Records thought he was when they signed him and I imagine that the label quietly released him from his contractual obligations, as is the way with record labels and unsuccesful artists. The label by the way didn’t fail at getting Gill to the top of the charts for lack of trying by the way, most acts don’t get three strikes at success. They tend to get dropped immediately when their debuts tank.
I’m not sure how Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike met Johnny but the music industry is a small world and given that they had met one can just see five lightbulbs pop up over the boys heads. NE was missing something and Johnny was all unfulfilled (and unemployed) potential. Why wouldn’t he join the group?
This album was released on the exact same day as Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel. That’s some serious marketing genius from whoever it was at MCA Records, the label on which both albums were released, that got to make that decision. In 1986 Bobby Brown split from New Edition very tumultuously and very pubically creating a feud between the singer and his former group. That feud had pretty much ended and become a healthy form of competition when New Edition and Bobby Brown were releasing Don’t Be Cruel and Heart Break. Apparently the guys weren’t that immature. And considering the fact that they were old friends who had been through a lot together after all and more importantly both parties had remained commercially successful in music following the split it wasn’t too difficult for them to reconcile. No hard feelings. But for many fans New Edition vs. Bobby Brown was still very much a thing. So when the fans got to the record store and saw these albums fresh on the shelf they felt more compelled to pick at least one of the two albums up to support the party they felt was right in the messy split, which pushed the sales figures of both albums up. Kanye and Fifty Cent pulled a similar marketing shenanigan in 2007. It always works to make an audience have the idea they have power over proceedings and have a real choice in matters. It is the multi million dollar equivalent of putting two tip jars on a bar with Justin Bieber and Chuck Norris names on them and letting customers decide who they like better by putting their tip in the jar with the person of their choice. The entire success of reality tv. talent concept shows like Pop Idol or The Voice on which the next pop idol is being chosen by viewers voting is also based on this idea of making the audience feel like they’re involved in this shit. If only that idea worked better for politics and getting people to actually vote for that shit, right?
In the mean time the world of contemporary R&B was changing around them. Guy had incorporated some hip-hop elements into the sound of traditional soul music to mass success. So Naranda Michael Walden, Ray Parker jr. and Freddie Perren weren’t called in for their services. Unfortunately the guys couldn’t get any Teddy beats because he was busy hanging out with frienemy Bob making his prerogative sound good.
So in stead they reached out to production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who had spent ’86 and ’87 helping Michael’s little sister succesfully transitioning into musical adulthood to see if they could do the same for the new edition of New Edition. Truth be told Jam and Lewis didn’t change that much about New Edition’s sound. The biggest difference between the sound of Heart Break and any of their previous albums is that New Edition sounds like a group of adults rather than a pack of young boys, which is because by ’88 they were aged around twenty and because the addition of Johnny Gill meant that they collectively sounded older by default since that guy has had the voice of a singer aged thirty since he was fifteen.In stead of racking up second rate Teddy Riley beats Jam & Lewis mostly create a bunch of lush compositions that build on the strengths of the group but sounded less sunny than their previous work and really sounds like nothing more or less than the logical next step after 1985’s All For Love and Gill’s sophomore solo album Chemistry of the same year.
Tresvant, the previously undisputed alpha male of the group lets go of the microphone more often than he previously did and not only in favour of new kid on the block Johnny (perhaps he was afraid of another walk out by a member if business proceded as usual.) but also on occasion to perpetual third in command Ricky Bell, and because of that the group sounds a lot more like a group.
Gill and Tresvant’s voices sound very well together because they’re completely different. Johnny has a chocolaty rich baritone comparable to Luther Vandross’ while Ralph’s voice sounds like Michael Jackson airy tenor, forming a nice contrast. This can be heard at work best on Can You Stand the Rain. The addition of Gill also created a new harmony in the group’s backing vocals which can be peeped on You’re Not My Kind of Girl. Of the remaining three only Ricky Bell pops up in a lead singing capacity on occasion. The rest isn’t in the forefront enough to leave much of an impression, which considering the actual raps heard on Bell Biv Devoe records may very well be for the better. Speaking of rap, not much of that going on on this album. Guess Bobby was the only the hip-hop enthousiast of the group with any influence.
Besides the Jam & Lewis tracks NE slipped two songs on here they produced themselves with Whitney Houston producer and the Time band-member (with among others Jam & Lewis and unofficially Prince) Jellybean Benitez. To their credit these instrumentals don’t sound any less good than the others songs.
There’s a fair share of hit songs and it’s all good stuff. If It Isn’t Love and You’re Not My Kind of Girl are some of those cute little concept songs that NE succesfully took to the charts previously with the likes of Cool It Now and Count Me Out with Tresvant questioning a relationship problem and discussing the matter with the other guys. N.E. Heartbreak is the most hip-hop thing on here and it proves that Ronnie, Ricky, Michael, Ralph and Johnny could rock that swingbeat almost as well as Bobby.
Crucial is sweet and bouncy enough to deserve its hit-status and all is pretty well. The very best thing on here however is hands down Can You Stand the Rain, a quiet storm classic if ever there was one with the lead being passed back-and-forth between Tresvant and Gill and Ricky Bell getting some shine too. It is the most convincing argument in favour of New Edition sans Brown with Gill. It is difficult imagining the NE of old doing this record at all, let alone doing it justice.
Competition also deserves an honourable mention because it has Ralph and Ricky lamenting the split with Bobby, although Tresvant, the writer of the song, could’ve chosen more elaborate wording because it could just as easily be interpreted as an anti-war or even an anti-capitalism song, which contemporary R&B just isn’t a suitable medium for (Workers of the world unite, in front of the fireplace while New Edition gets in your pants).
Boys to Men, the album closer, which has Gill on leads inspired another R&B group to change its name and reach for the stars, eventually ending up making it big under NE member Michael Bivins’ managment (guess which one) and is also notable for the fact that Gill, who thought of it as too childish for his tastes to completely overperform parts of it out of protest. Despite his attempts to fuck it up is was still well recieved by critics so that’s some talented singer problem right there.
The rest of the songs are well meaning R&B-fluff, a little bland on occasion, but never off-puttingly so.
If Under the Blue Moon raised questions of New Edition’s relevance without Brown’s swagger keeping things interesting Heart Break makes it very clear that New Edition, with the addition of Gill, still had a reason for existence, and a moderately new, fresh and more classy, mature artistic direction. For my money Brown had the better, more interesting album with Don’t Be Cruel (and contemporary music buying audiences thought so too since Cruel sold about four times as many copies as Heart Break did) but Heart Break sold two million, which isn’t bad, and it inspired a succesful concert tour which had Al B. Sure! and Brown on it as opening acts (which made it okay for Bobby fans to buy Heart Break and for Ralph-fans to pick up Don’t Be Cruel, clever boys).
Following Heart Break the guys split up with succesful albums coming from Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant and unexpectedly the rump-group Bell Biv Devoe, which consisted of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ron Devoe. With the solo-success of its members for a while seemed like New Edition was history for good. Until Ralph, Johnny, Bobby and BBD each dropped an album that was disappointingly saleswise and they reunited New Edition as a sextet with both Gill and Brown included for an album in ’96, that was. Look out for all those albums being reviewed on the site sooner than later.
For now: Heart Break is a pretty good late ’80s R&B album that you would do well to check out.
If It Isn’t Love
You’re Not My Kind of Girl
Can You Stand the Rain
Boys to Men
Buy this album.