August 20, 2013

dont-be-cruel1

Peter Holslin is the seventh member of New Edition.

I was two years old when Don’t Be Cruel came out. Bobby Brown was not a name I recognized. I knew nothing of this New Jack Swing classic. My only experience with New Jack Swing would come a few years later, with Vanilla Ice’s cameo on that cinematic masterpiece, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. But as the Turtles duked it out with the Foot Clan on the dance floor, I hardly noticed as Ice dropped references to the hip “New Swing sound” in between his chants of “Go ninja, go ninja, go!”

A quarter-century later, I’ve just now gotten around to listening to Don’t Be Cruel. But the funny thing is, I feel like I already know this album. Its influence (and the influence of New Jack Swing in general) has spread far and wide, and I’ve heard echoes of its charms via a number of unexpected sources—the sweetheart raï groove of Algerian singer Khaled; the slammin’ synthpop shuffle of South African producer Tashif’ Kente; the haunting lo-fi balladry of Brooklyn’s How to Dress Well…

A critic might call Don’t Be Cruel dated, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. The album is rife with the sort of computerized horn hits, keytar bass-lines and synth’d-out slow jams that could’ve only come out of the ’80s. Still, when I listen to Don’t Be Cruel, I hear a work of pure pop genius. The lyrics are the stuff running men are made of. The hooks get lodged in my head for hours at a time (sometimes to maddening effect). And the beats bang so damn hard that I wanna dance every time I hear them, even when I’m at the grocery store.

Don’t Be Cruel was a smash hit when it first came out—it was the best-selling album of 1989, and went on to go seven-times platinum—but its renown has dimmed over the years. With the release of Dangerous in 1991, Michael Jackson arguably took Bobby Brown’s place as New Jack’s crossover king. And later, Brown’s creative achievements were eclipsed by his seemingly endless struggles with booze, drugs and the law.

Still, Don’t Be Cruel is an important album. For Brown, it represented a major career move: his first solo pelvic thrust of many to come, following his ejection from New Edition (the *original* boy band) in 1986. And for New Jack Swing—an electronic R&B style invented by Harlem producer Teddy Riley that crossed elements of jazz, soul, funk and hip-hop, usually with a hard swing in the beat—the album was a moment of crystallization. Keith Sweat had an opening salvo with the 1987 hit “I Want Her,” and Riley’s band Guy jammed hard with their 1988 self-titled debut. But Brown blew the sound up with Don’t Be Cruel’s lush electronic palette and ace, swoon-worthy songcraft.

Don’t Be Cruel’s biggest hit, “My Prerogative”—co-written by Brown, Riley and producer Gene Griffin—is timeless. The ultimate rebuke to shit-talk and gossip, it’s as resonant today as it was 25 years ago, which helps explain why it’s been covered by both Britney Spears and Jamaican dancehall star Beenie Man. However, “My Prerogative” is just one of many highlights on this record. When it comes to straight romancing, my heart belongs to “Roni,” the slushiest of the album’s five hit singles.

As a slinking groove assembles like a sexed-up Autobot, “Roni” finds Brown offering up the Platonic ideal of the perfect lady: “She’ll make the toughest homeboy / Fall deep in love / Said once you had a Roni / You will never give her up.” When I first heard this song, I didn’t like it very much. It doesn’t slam as hard as other New Jack Swing tunes, and it’s also a bit goofy: Bobby repeatedly refers to his lovely lady as a “Tenderoni”—blurring the “r”s of “tender” and “Roni” together—and that always makes me think of Rice-A-Roni.

Still, like any good seducer, Brown knows how to take things nice and slow, and I finally broke down after repeated listens. While I approach a lot of music with a critical remove, I’m also a hopeless romantic. And when Bobby Brown is whispering sweet encouragements in my ear, over and over again—“Make it official / Give her your love!”—I really start to believe in these Tenderoni daydreams.

Ultimately, though, the romance of Don’t Be Cruel wouldn’t be as potent without the brawny beats to back it up. The snares on this album alone are enough to knock the wind out of you. In a decade full of big drum-machine snares, these have got to be the most alluringly dangerous: As hi-hats keep the swing going and raw kicks bring a bottom-heavy punch, one knuckle-dusting snare after another lands with a solid crack on the downbeat.

Indeed, while New Jack Swing is a sexy sound, it’s also hard as fuck. The term was coined in 1987 by the journalist Barry Michael Cooper, and it alludes to what Cooper calls “new jacks”—a generation of Gucci-wearing, Uzi-toting black kids who made entrepreneurial strides off the crack and heroin trade in crumbling American cities. New Jack Swing provided a soundtrack to this elegant yet violent culture: In the 1991 film New Jack City, when gangster Nino Brown and his cronies take a break from running their crack factory in the housing project, they dress up in in gold chains and designer suits to celebrate at the club, where Riley and his bandmates in Guy jam out onstage.

In “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young”—a 1987 Village Voice story about Detroit that served as a blueprint for New Jack City—Cooper defines the new jacks of Motown as such: “a calculated novice who enjoys killing you, aside from making a name for himself.” And while a star like Bobby Brown wasn’t packing heat, he sure was a stone-cold killer. Once regarded as New Edition’s resident bad boy, he had pipes, he had moves, he had style (just look at that sharp suit he’s wearing on the cover), and he had the razor-sharp hooks to back it all up.

Even the cutest song on Don’t Be Cruel, “Every Little Step,” hits extra-hard. Beneath the song’s message of humility and commitment—“As a matter of fact, it blows my mind / You would even talk to me / Because a girl like you is a dream come true / A real life fantasy”—producers L.A. Reid and Babyface conjure a river of molten lava funk. The melody zig-zags, the kicks knock in syncopated movements, and the bass bubbles with primal need. Little steps, my ass; Bobby Brown is on the hunt.

In the years after Don’t Be Cruel came out, electronic R&B got a bit more polished and nuanced. By the time 1994 came around, you could hear TLC upping the ante in almost every way—production, passion, real-talk—with their album CrazySexyCool. While Brown once sang wistfully of little steps and Tenderonis, these ladies made crank calls to crack poop jokes (“Sexy – Interlude”) and told guys to step up their game (“Kick Your Game”). Bobby spoke out against cruel girlfriends and shit-talk; TLC took on drug dealing and HIV.

Still, it’s hard to imagine CrazySexyCool happening without Don’t Be Cruel coming before it. The same could be said for a lot of albums. With the glamor, the hooks and the hard groove, Don’t Be Cruel helped lay the foundation for the future of R&B. That’s what’s so beautiful about this album: It’s the kind of masterwork that just seems to float in the pop ether, informing people in ways they don’t even realize. I went years without ever listening to Don’t Be Cruel. When I finally did, it was like reuniting with an old friend I never knew I had.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!