Happy 30th Anniversary to New Edition’s fifth studio album Heart Break, originally released June 20, 1988.
In late November 1986, the teen R&B vocal sensations New Edition released their fourth album, Under the Blue Moon. This collection was seminal for Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, Ronnie DeVoe and Michael Bivins for several reasons. It was their first album without their firebrand fifth member Bobby Brown ousted the previous December, which made Under the Blue Moon the sole New Edition recording issued by them as a quartet. Further, excluding “Bring Back the Memories,” their fourth effort was an ambitious covers record paying homage to the male vocal rhythm and blues tradition of the 1950s and 1960s. In selecting material from the coveted canons of The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl”), Eddie Holman (“Hey There Lonely Girl”) and Little Anthony and The Imperials (“Tears On My Pillows”) New Edition made a bold bid for credibility.
Envisioned as the inaugural step toward the process of shedding the youthfulness of their first three long players, Under the Blue Moon worked better in theory than in practice. Woefully underproduced by Freddie Perren and Ric Wyatt Jr., the classic song pieces were clumsily retrofitted to the black pop and R&B of the period. In hindsight, had New Edition's management—an entity separate from their label MCA Records who handled their distribution—actually paired the young men with producers that understood the lush complexities of those classics, the possibilities could have been endless. Instead, the album was barely held aloft by the minor charting success of its single “Earth Angel.”
The silver lining in the failure of Under the Blue Moon was that it freed New Edition from their management deal with Jump & Shoot Productions. New Edition and MCA Records were now free to move forward together to much more promising endeavors. Still, there was friction between Bell, Tresvant, DeVoe and Bivins threatening to tank any opportunities afforded to them post-Jump & Shoot Productions. Tresvant, ready to strike out alone, left Bivins, Bell and DeVoe in a considerable lurch. They had no choice but to consider a replacement.
The dynamic Johnny Gill had gotten his start at 16 on the Cotillion Records subsidiary associated with the larger Atlantic Records family. Between 1983 and 1985, Gill recorded and released three albums for Cotillion, one of which—Perfect Combination (1984)—was a duets album with Stacy Lattisaw. Gill had the technical chops and a friendship with Bivins, Bell and DeVoe, which made him the ideal candidate. As negotiations were underway to bring Gill into the New Edition fold, the group had to quickly brainstorm how to resurface their sound. Enter James “Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis.
Hailing from Minneapolis, Jam and Lewis had come a long way from towing the line for the Twin Cities favorite son, Prince, in his side project The Time. Beginning in 1982, Jam and Lewis began to write, arrange and produce singles—and albums—for the likes of Klymaxx, the S.O.S. Band, Change, Alexander O'Neal and Cherelle. Their union with Janet Jackson in 1986 on her third studio affair Control gave them not only a muse, but an enduring working relationship and friendship with the vocalist and songwriter. Additionally, that same year, Jam and Lewis stepped out into the wider pop world by taking on production duties for the British electronic outfit The Human League's fifth LP Crash.
New Edition were enthusiastic about Jam and Lewis' work history and the producers were equally as keen to oversee the planning and execution of New Edition's fifth album, Heart Break. The group would also contribute their own writing and co-production on select tracks too. As preparations for Heart Break got underway, Tresvant had come around to not only remaining with his longtime friends, but embracing Gill as well, returning the New Edition roster back to a quintet again.
New Edition, Jam and Lewis were all on the same page regarding the utilization of New Jack Swing as the primary musical template for Heart Break. The red hot mix of hip-hop beats, black dance rhythms and the irrepressible grooves and melodies of R&B were at the heart of the movement that exploded into existence a year before Heart Break was unleashed. Excluding the comical studio banter between the guys on a handful of skits, the remaining contents of the record rock with the booming sounds of the New Jack Swing method of the period. In particular, the now-iconic first single “If It Isn't Love,” with its militaristic drumroll and cadenced, clanging synth effects set against the handsome unison approach and Tresvant's standout lead vocal, got the party started with a bang.
The album itself opens proper with the crisp and breezy “That's the Way We're Livin'” where New Edition declares their position as one of the premier R&B powerhouses of their day and beyond. And with the support of sterling entries such as the soulfully coruscating “You're Not My Kind of Girl” and “Can You Stand the Rain”—balancing leads and/or prominent ad-libs from Tresvant, Gill and Bell—as evidence, it's hard to argue against the New Edition standard.
On these pieces, and elsewhere on Heart Break, New Edition darts thematically from romantic proclamations as heard on “Superlady” to swaggering statements of cool on “Where It All Started.” The latter motif gives its flashiest grin and wink on the funky “N.E. Heart Break.” Showcasing the braggadocious charm of Bivins and DeVoe's hip-hop fluency, this jam was the germ of the soon-to-be successful New Edition offshoot Bill Biv DeVoe that rose to prominence just two years later.
Issued to the public on June 20, 1988—the same release date, not coincidentally, as Bobby Brown’s sophomore MCA album Don’t Be Cruel—Heart Break accomplished critically and commercially what Under the Blue Moon had not: the reinvigoration of New Edition. The double platinum platter not only housed five hit singles, it served as the impetus for an expansive tour that cemented them as consummate showmen.
More than any record within their impressive canon, New Edition's Heart Break has served as a well of inspiration for others—musically and visually—with the likes of Boyz II Men (whose stage moniker was directly inspired by Heart Break’s closing track “Boys to Men”), Chris Brown, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars tapping it for their own art. Of more importance is that Heart Break demonstrated the effectiveness of their mature reset, ensuring brand longevity without abandoning the core identity of New Edition as a collective entity, united in their love for the art of singing.