The year was 1991, and New Edition ruled the world. Or so it seemed.
They had completed a six-year run of celebrated albums, culminating in their most mature and accomplished to date, 1988’s Heart Break. They’d released a string of hit singles, including “Cool It Now”, “Mr. Telephone Man”, “Candy Girl”, “If It Isn’t Love”, and “Can You Stand the Rain”. Although the group had dissolved, Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, and Johnny Gill had released successful solo albums. Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe formed the equally popular and trend-setting Bell Biv Devoe. Plus, Bivins’s eye for talent had led to third-generation sensations Boyz II Men and (shudder) Another Bad Creation.
Then, quicker than you can say “Hootie Mack”, it all fell apart. Not one, not two, but four (five if you include ABC’s dismal follow-up album) sophomore slumps.
A sense of reconciliation (read: desperation) brought about a reunion of all six members of New Edition for 1996’s Home Again, which became their first album to top the Billboard Pop Charts. But soon afterward, Brown, still under the delusion of a viable solo career, balked at the idea of having to divide his income with the group. New Edition once again split. Eight dry years and innumerable wedding band night terrors later, a Brown-less New Edition is back for one more try.
It seems fitting that the group would find refuge on Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy label, since both Combs and NE are struggling to regain their magic touch. Bad Boy’s ’90s hit-making machine, stocked with talent-challenged acts like Total, Mase, and Combs himself, died with Biggie Smalls and has yet to recover.
The fact that Combs is going out of style, however, doesn’t preclude him from gathering the resources needed to put out a quality product. As proof, we have One Love, a sharp, spirited release that lives up to the legacies of both New Edition and Bad Boy. The question is, is anyone still listening?
In the 21st century, Combs and New Edition face a fickle urban audience, one that is constantly shifting its sights to younger, hipper acts. Bow Wow, Lil’ Romeo, and Chingy are young enough be Bobby Brown’s illegitimate kids. By hip-hop standards, these guys are geezers.
And it’s by hip-hop standards that New Edition will be judged. Over the past decade, R&B has been engulfed by hip-hop’s brash sound and style. By the looks of the cover of One Love — the 30-something band members swaggering in baggy jeans, Timberlands, and sunglasses, hands poised dangerously close to their crotches — this is just fine with them.
As one might expect, One Love feels a bit disjointed, like three albums crammed into one. You get Ralph Tresvant’s bubble-gum R&B, Bell Biv Devoe’s lascivious hip-hop, and Johnny Gill’s seductive, ballad-driven R&B, all fighting for time.
The best selections, however, are the ones that remain true to the poppy mid-tempo R&B jams that helped establish New Edition’s sound, such as “Love Again”, “Wildest Dream”, “Last Time”, and “Best Man”.
“Hot 2 Nite”, the first single, is one of the better hip-hop-oriented tracks, but Bad Boy’s stock formula of “catchy hook + jiggy beat = hit” creates a sound that isn’t distinct enough to be a smash in today’s marketplace. On the bright side, there’s no rap from either Biv or DeVoe.
The same can’t be said about four or five other songs on One Love, as the “BD” from BBD detract from otherwise delightful tracks with their lethargic, dated raps (On “Love Again”, DeVoe even quotes Main Source’s 1991 underground hit “Lookin’ at the Front Door”), which weren’t even that good back in the day. “All on You” is by far their most painful display, a far-reaching attempt at a rough-‘n-rugged hip-hop track that suffers from both Biv DeVoe’s verbal skills and the sexual images conjured by their lyrics.
Speaking of bad rapping, P. Diddy shows remarkable restraint in not planting his slack-jawed vocals in the middle of every song on the album. Only on the Usher-like “Feelin’ It” does he find the time to contribute his crucial “yeahs” and “uh-huhs.” I was beginning to forget how talented he is.
Meanwhile, another Usher-styled cut, “Stop Turnin’ Me On”, stands out amongst a horde of dance floor fillers as the most hit-worthy tune here.
The latter half of One Love is a more mellow affair peppered with benign ballads that hearken back to the ’80s. Writers/producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, trying to revitalize their own careers, demonstrate that their sound has changed little over the years. “Newness” could’ve been recorded in Janet Jackson’s heyday; “Re-Write the Memories” should be called “Can You Stand the Rain Pt. II”. “Come Home With Me” is a lyrically-challenged “My, My, My” knock-off. Still, these are a welcome retreat to the type of sultry R&B you don’t hear on hip-hop saturated urban airwaves nowadays.
But New Edition is fighting an uphill battle. Face it: they debuted over 20 years ago. Their original fans are pushing 40. There’s an entirely new generation listening to the type of streetwise pop R&B they helped pioneer. When you aim at the hip-hop market, you have to know your shelf life.
The end result is that youngsters today will likely view this album as just another generic pop/hip-hop/R&B Bad Boy release — along the lines of 112 — and those old enough to remember New Edition may see it as a too-hip bastardization of the group’s original sound.
If they do dismiss it, though, they’ll be missing out on a gratifying journey down memory lane. Misplaced hip-hop swagger aside, old fans and newcomers alike should find plenty to “love.”