Happy 30th Anniversary to Bobby Brown’s second studio album Don’t Be Cruel, originally released June 20, 1988.
The rise of an artist can be a funny thing. When you discover them greatly informs your perception of their career. Take Bobby Brown for example. As a kid growing up in Australia, I was aware of him as part of New Edition, but his 1986 debut solo album King of Stage didn’t really hit it big down under (or anywhere, for that matter). So when Brown unveiled his follow-up Don’t Be Cruel in 1988 (on the same day that his former group New Edition released their fifth studio album Heart Break), I was under the (misguided) impression that this was his debut effort.
It wasn’t until Brown toured Australia in support of Don’t Be Cruel that I was introduced to King album tracks like “Girlfriend” and “You Ain’t Been Loved Right.” For me, and I’d assume many others, Don’t Be Cruel was the debut album Brown deserved rather than the forgettable King of Stage. (Side note: it was a dismal concert with Brown shouting his way through songs rather than singing, and if memory serves me correctly, extended periods of dry humping the floor. But I was obviously a glutton for punishment as I returned several years later for the Humpin’ Around Tour too, which was equally spectacularly disappointing.)
What Don’t Be Cruel has going for it are the songs, the production team helmed by the dynamic duo L.A Reid and Babyface and then up-and-coming producer and New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley (though his work is uncredited), and of course, Bobby Brown, swinging the right mix of braggadocio, bravado and seduction throughout the album.
Whilst the recording process was plagued by Brown’s absence due to an increasing drug dependence, most of the behind-the-scenes drama didn’t make its way into the grooves of the tracks (at least, not noticeably at the time). What remains is a solid R&B album that straddles the modern blueprint set by the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince coupled with the emerging influence of New Jack Swing.
The idea to bookend the album with the “Cruel” prelude and reprise came from a dearth in material and something needed to pad out the album’s track list, but at the time it felt like the opening and closing credits of a film.
So with the album proper starting with “Don’t Be Cruel,” Brown uses the sweetness and range in his voice to great effect in the verses, and the addition of the rap (an ever increasing signature on this album) feels like a natural fit with the track rather than an of-the-moment gimmicky tack-on. The instant the groove hits, with its slight shuffle and reverb-heavy sonic claps, you knew this would be a song that would drag many to the dance floor. With an almost seven-minute run time, the track does tend to overstay its welcome post the five minute mark, offering little variation. But it stills holds a definite tinge of nostalgia to it.
“My Prerogative” produced by an uncredited Teddy Riley, is the standout track on the album. With its early New Jack Swing influence, “My Prerogative” hits you from beat one. With a fuller arrangement than the sparse “Don’t Be Cruel,” the track has a swagger to it that is as much about the groove as it is about Brown’s vocal delivery. Giving a bit of attitude to the track, Brown owns the lyrics and gives each word more gravitas. This was a landmark track not just for Brown, but also for the burgeoning New Jack Swing movement that would dominate the charts for years to come. As for Teddy Riley not getting credit for the track, his influence is undeniable especially considering Brown’s shout-out during the ad libs.
Borrowing a phrase from Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.,” Babyface created a smooth as silk seductive slow jam in “Roni” that allowed Brown to put his charm and bag of seduction to good use. The stacked harmonies in the pre-chorus pull you in and deliver on the chorus. Brown’s spoken word/rap section is a little cringe-worthy and comes off as a poor man’s LL Cool J, and fails on the “come on” meter. Strangely enough, during the second pass, when the words are sung more than rapped, the infraction doesn’t seem as sever.
The candle light seduction continues with “Rock Wit’cha,” but the song only really comes together in the chorus and has somewhat tepid verses. However, with that melodic hook in the chorus it was enough to have the song worthy of a single release.
And who can forget “Every Little Step” with that new jack swagger and skipping beat. The joyous, feel-good track of the album, the song is all bright and bouncy with Brown’s vocals filling out the sparse arrangement. Whilst rumors have surfaced that perhaps Brown didn’t fulfil all lead vocal duties, with Ralph Tresvant reportedly brought in to finish off the lead due to Brown being off on a bender (and the second verse does have a slight difference in tone which could be Tresvant). Regardless, “Every Little Step” was the breakout hit of the album and it still possesses the ability to get your head bobbing and feet yearning to bust out the running man.
With the previous songs holding down the lion’s share of the album, it’s at this juncture that the album loses steam. “I’ll Be Good To You” is a cool enough song that smacks of being another (uncredited) Teddy Riley track, and perhaps feels more aligned to Guy’s eponymous debut album that came out a week prior to Don’t Be Cruel.
“Take It Slow” and “All Day All Night” are standard by-the-numbers R&B fare that was being offered by the dozen at the time. And album closer “I Really Love You” remains unfocused and unfinished, suffering from a terrible mix.
But by then, it didn’t matter. The hook and appeal of the first five songs are what carried the album. With five Top Ten Singles and over seven million in sales, Don’t Be Cruel set Bobby Brown up as the new star for an emerging sound, and for a period of time he was the most exciting male artist on the planet.
While the 1992 follow-up Bobby was more consistent and musically stronger, Don’t Be Cruel was Brown’s shining moment. 30 years on, it’s a fun nostalgic trip with some solid tracks, but perhaps your memories are better served spinning the singles rather than the album in its entirety.