Bobby Brown takes pride in being “an honest man” in his music. When the gap-toothed, asymmetric haircut-wearing singer synonymous with rocking his signature gold crown on a thick rope chain released his sophomore effort, Don’t Be Cruel, on June 20, 1988, the New Edition member intentionally wanted to deliver an updated, hard-hitting sound that abandoned his teenybopper image the same way Control did for Janet Jackson two years earlier.
Brown’s 1986 debut solo LP King of Stage was the Boston native’s easygoing attempt to cooperate with the direction the record executives at MCA Records had in mind for him. When the time came for a follow-up project, Brown had his own vision, concluding that both his sound and image had to evolve but run a parallel line with his core identity. “I knew I had to step my game up,” Brown says, following a hectic day of press runs. “What I was hearing in my head I wasn’t hearing with ‘Girlfriend.’ I was just going with the flow trying to make good music. I needed grit. I needed grime. I needed the streets.”
L.A. Reid, Babyface and Teddy Riley—then up-and-coming producers—were brought in to handle the bulk of the songwriting and production on Don’t Be Cruel. The album became a groundbreaking, massive success, unapologetically marrying together R&B, pop, hip-hop, dance and New Jack Swing. Five singles—the title track, “My Prerogative” [peaking at Number One on the pop charts], “Roni,” “Every Little Step” and “Rock Wit’cha”—were each certified gold and cracked the pop Top Ten. The crowned “Original King of R&B” earned a Grammy Award, a Soul Train Award and two American Music Awards. Brown toured the globe for three years off that one project. Selling over 7 million copies domestically and 12 million worldwide, Don’t Be Cruel became the best-selling album of 1989.
Don’t Be Cruel, Brown remembers, made everyone involved superstars and highly sought after talents in their own right. Much like his vision to make music that disrupted the landscape of both pop and contemporary black music, Brown’s objective, he adds, was to provide a platform for writers and producers to defy musical conventions. “Hopefully, I gave them confidence to do whatever they wanted to do,” Brown, the former husband of late vocalist Whitney Houston, says.
“I wasn’t going to give up on anything that I wanted. I worked as hard as possible to make sure that I achieved all of my goals. I hope I gave them the strength to pick up their boots from the straps and run with everything the success of Don’t Be Cruel had given us. We all became successful just off that one album.”
Brown, 49, went on to release four subsequent full-length projects: the double-platinum, Grammy-nominated Bobby (1992), Forever (1997) and The Masterpiece (2012). Along with his highly publicized, 15-year marriage to Houston, who tragically passed away in February 2012, Brown made headlines for erratic, egotistical behavior during a few attempts to reunite with New Edition, coupled with alleged drug abuse and reports of domestic violence. The “Humpin’ Around” singer, former star of the reality series Being Bobby Brown and best-selling author was frequently lampooned and parodied on sketch comedy and stand-up routines. Furthermore, Brown experienced a heart attack and stroke that nearly ended his life.
Despite dwindling record sales, media scrutiny and various health challenges, Brown has no regrets for the rollercoaster ride his life and public image became. “You go through ups and downs, challenges, trials and tribulations,” Brown explains. “But you have to be able to be strong for the ones that you love and for yourself.”
These days, Brown has a new lease on life. He’s been married to his second wife, Alicia Etheredge-Brown, for six years and has three children with her. The two co-operate a production company, Brown Ribbon Entertainment. The father of seven made his foray into the food and beverage industry in 2014: releasing Bobby Brown Foods, his own line of sauces, seasonings and dry rubs. The entertainer recently reunited with New Edition members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe, too, to form RBRM, an acronym for their first names synonymous with the memorable line in New Edition’s 1984 smash single “Cool It Now.”
Being a committed family man, Brown says, is what helps him maintain peace of mind. “I pray a lot,” Brown shares. “I got a strong unit behind me; my wife, my kids and family support me. They believe in everything that I want to do. When happiness comes into your life, things change. I choose to think positive, and that’s the way I get through it.”
The twists and turns in Brown’s life are the basis for a made-for-TV miniseries for BET premiering September 4th and 5th. The two-night, much anticipated televised event, The Bobby Brown Story, picks up where the hit three-part biopic, The New Edition Story, leaves off: graphically covering three decades worth of Brown’s fame, fortune, success, romantic life, infidelities and personal tragedies. Admitting with a slight stutter that he has some reservations and fear regarding what viewers and critics may think after seeing The Bobby Brown Story, Brown, who also co-produces the film, says being transparent about his well-documented past and personal life is the result of younger generations of fans gravitating towards New Edition’s legacy.
“That’s my truth,” Brown confirms. “I can only live by what I’ve lived and what I’ve learned in my life. That’s the most important thing; kids need to know if you don’t live in your truth, then you’re living a lie. As long as I tell the story, there’s nothing that can be talked about. I hope that it teaches young men and women what life is all about.”
Providing assistance to victims and survivors of domestic violence is another lane Brown is tapping into. He created the Bobbi Kristina Serenity House, three years ago as an homage to his deceased daughter, who passed in 2015. The nonprofit is in the process of building a shelter and safe haven in metro Atlanta. Paying close attention to the conversations around #TimesUp and #MeToo along with overcoming the trauma of losing a child, Brown wants his community efforts to break devastating generational curses.
“We have a problem in this world,” Brown insists. “Somebody has to put their hands out to be here to help for whatever. Families are being destroyed by domestic violence. I don’t want to see anyone else lose a daughter. I don’t want to see another family or parent have to suffer. Enough is enough. From my heart to theirs, I can do something or I can’t.”
As for music, Brown hopes to recapture the magic he invigorated into pop music three decades ago. Recently, he reunited with Babyface and Riley in the studio to record new material. One song in particular, “Like Bobby,” is an autobiographical song Brown taps into to revisit his past; the song is featured in The Bobby Brown Story. Calling the creative reunion “incredible,” a determined, spiritually rejuvenated Brown believes jumping back in the lab with both hit producers is all in divine timing.
“It’s us respecting each other as artists, entertainers and writers,” Brown says. “We were able to put something together I think everybody will be amazed by. Whatever happened in the past—the non-hit albums or whatever—our connection was not a fluke.”
Brown continues, “Our connection is real. The reason why it happened in the first place was because of God, and God has brought us back. We got back to where we left off 30 years ago.”
What makes an older and wiser Brown proud is knowing Don’t Be Cruel is a project that helped to birth male entertainers like Chris Brown, Usher, August Alsina, Trey Songz and Bryson Tiller. The album’s even balance between uptempo tracks and sensual ballads meshed with Brown’s tenacious live performances, sweat-induced choreography and opulent fashion sense set the tone for younger performers making crossover music that had straddled the line between the streets and pop radio. It still overwhelms Brown that he was at one time the biggest star in the world.
The iconic success of Don’t Be Cruel, Brown concludes, is by far one of the biggest accomplishments he’s most proud of. The thought of nostalgia makes Brown chuckle a bit. “We went in to make one of the greatest albums ever,” he explains.
“It wasn’t Thriller, but it was Thriller for me. At that time, it felt like nothing could take me off of that road, but things happen in life. I’m just grateful that I’m still here to be able to enjoy the fruit of my labor.”
Bobby Brown’s Five Favorite Albums of All Time:
Marvin Gaye | What’s Going On (1971)
Donny Hathaway | Extension of a Man (1973)
Michael Jackson | Thriller (1982)
Prince & the Revolution | Purple Rain (1984)
Stevie Wonder | Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
EXPLORE Bobby Brown's discography here