[18 August 2009]
The DeBarge family has largely been seen as a talented family that never quite reached the commercial and artistic relevance of the Jacksons, with whom they are frequently compared (due, in no small part, to their discovery by Motown impresario Berry Gordy, who told anyone who would listen that they were going to the next Jacksons, but bigger).
This view is not necessarily true or fair.
In many ways, the DeBarges’ ‘80s hits have been more durable than even the great Jacksons trilogy (Destiny, Victory, Triumph). Their hit “All This Love” has been covered numerous times, “I Like It” is one of the most sampled songs of its era, and you can still hear “Rhythm of the Night” on the few remaining black radio stations in the country.
And ironically, Chico DeBarge emerged in the late 1990s as one of the great artists of the contemporary soul movement (along with D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu) at precisely the time that Janet and Michael began their slow fall from popular grace. But Chico—like his family before him—has never been properly respected for his consistently accomplished work, despite his small, rabid fan base.
In fact, usually when Chico DeBarge is discussed, his stint in jail on drug charges in the early 1990s is the focus. Perhaps recognizing this, DeBarge is heading us off by addressing his more recent troubles head-on by talking about these troubles—he was stabbed at a concert in Chicago in 2003 and became addicted to prescription medication—in the press and by working them into his new album, aptly titled Addiction.
In doing so, DeBarge has infused the new album with real, palpable emotional heft that deepens his work tremendously, even though (outside of the interludes) very few songs directly reference his recent struggles. He perhaps wisely chose to fold his story into songs that puts some interesting spins on the woman-is-my-drug metaphor
This approach works to stunning effect on the title track—and album standout—“Slick (Addiction), a blues-inflected jazz song in which we are told that “her magic just won’t leave me alone / Got a real bad case of love jones”. DeBarge’s singing here is urgent, present, and showcases just how skillful a vocalist he truly is. Like a great jazz vocalist, he alternates his phrasing and pacing throughout the song, giving it subtle emotional beats that aren’t necessarily written into the melody. It is easily his finest work to date.
“I’m Okay” is a song that blends staccato, coffeehouse-style verses with a smooth, melodic hook that is guaranteed to keeps heads nodding. The lyrics are pure confession (“The big book says to bare my soul to keep my sanity control”) and feel sincere and understated.
Even with a very clear focus on an important period in his life, Chico does take time to get a little funky. Lead single “Oh No” and “I Forgot Ur Name” are as sublime as mid-tempo soul gets. The former, co-written by Joe Thomas, is a killer guitar-driven track that definitely makes you want to get your dance on.
If there is any problem with the album, it is that a handful of songs (“Tell Ur Man” and “Math”, his collaboration with Talib Kweli) just sound pretty run-of-the-mill next to the other songs I’ve referenced. Though they aren’t necessarily “bad” songs, they are aggressively average enough to keep Addiction from being the masterpiece it clearly could have been.
Even so, it’s the strongest contemporary soul record of the year so far (along with Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night) and a beautiful re-introduction to a major, unsung talent.