For a time in the ‘80s, El DeBarge seemed to be the second coming of Michael Jackson. He came from a Motown family band whose hits (“Love Me in a Special Way,” “Who’s Holding Donna Now”, and “Rhythm of the Night”) were as sweet and infectious as anything the Jacksons had created. El left the band for a solo career with the help of Berry Gordy Jr., and his first record leapt up the charts thanks to the success of the catchy first single “Who’s Johnny?”, which was featured in the movie Short Circuit. The video of the track made it into heavy rotation on MTV, where El’s dulcet falsetto voice and handsome face became well-known to millions.
But something happened. DeBarge’s career stalled, despite releasing some fine music during the late ‘80s and ‘90s. He was largely forgotten and began to get into legal troubles, mostly for crack cocaine, during the 21st century. DeBarge was eventually sentenced to a two-year term in a federal penitentiary. He’s out now, and as his new album’s title suggests, DeBarge is looking for a Second Chance. The good news is that his honeyed voice seems unscathed by his troubles. Old fans will welcome hearing him back again, and new listeners who weren’t even born before he had his first hit will find themselves hooked.
The album succeeds to a large extent simply because it addresses a wide demographic. He sings several steamy love songs whose urban fire will ignite those in search of R&B style passion. For example, there’s the deep groove on his sultry duet with Faith Evans, “Lay with You”. This is one of those tunes that sort of ooze sex in a soulful way (think Gregory Abbot’s “Shake You Down” as a touchstone).
DeBarge offers a sly wink at the changing times, with the help of 50 Cent, on “Format” as he sings/raps his way through lyrics about no matter whatever platform he uses (email, tweets, texts), he needs to get his insistent message across — he has to see his girl in person. DeBarge also gets down to the basics of romantic love on the mostly acoustic “When I See You” that has a breezy tropical groove behind the vocals. On these, and the bulk of the baker’s dozen worth of tracks here, knowledge of DeBarge’s past does not deepen one’s appreciation of his talents.
But there are other tracks with more personal concerns that go beyond the bedroom or the dance floor. Four of the last five songs on the disc address his failings and his search for redemption. On “Joyful”, Debarge announces that he now “embraces the struggle” of life. He no longer always wants to win, he just doesn’t want to disappoint those he loves. He addresses his demons more directly on “Sad Songs” as he acknowledges that he’s “Sick and tired sitting in this crib / And looking at this man in the mirror”. He remorsefully sings of the pain he has caused others, but DeBarge goes beyond wallowing. As the former ’80s star croons on the title cut that closes the album, he seeks a “Second Chance”. He says goodbye to his former life and hello to the future. He accepts the blame for the past but refuses to live there. Welcome back, El, it is a pleasure to hear from you again.