Happy 25th Anniversary to Bell Biv DeVoes debut LP Poison, originally released March 20, 1990.
Its hard to believe, but more than thirty years have passed since five precociously talented young gentlemen released their debut album together as New Edition. 1983s Candy Girl marked the official beginning of the Boston-bred groups storied career, which has proven time and time again to be one of the most remarkable and enduring phenomena in music history.
Arguably inspired by the legacy of the original soul boy band, The Jackson 5, group members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill redefined the R&B group aesthetic and sound for a whole new generation during the 80s. Through their unrivaled penchant for slick songcraft and spirited performance, New Edition raised the bar of professionalism for aspiring R&B and pop acts to incredible new heights. Indeed, New Edition became the prototype for that oh-so delicate balance between success and quality, offering the creative and commercial blueprint that all others attempted to replicate in the years that followed.
But with five acclaimed albums under their belts by the end of the 80s, leaving little left for them to prove, the individual members of New Edition grew increasingly restless and opted to explore their musical independence. Brown had already set the precedent for autonomy when he left the group in 1985 to launch his solo career. His stellar 1988 sophomore album Dont Be Cruel amazingly released by MCA Records on the same day the label released New Editions equally superb Heart Break LP was a tour de force. Aided in large part by a handful of crossover radio hits like My Prerogative, Every Little Step and the title track, Dont Be Cruel moved millions of units. Meanwhile, Bell, Bivins, DeVoe, Tresvant, and Gill (who first appeared on Heart Break) were able to witness first-hand that creative vitality and commercial viability were not necessarily contingent upon preserving the group dynamic.
So by 1990, the quintet had placed the group on what would turn out to be a six-year hiatus to pursue new projects. While Gill and Tresvant would release solid solo albums during the year, their colleagues Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe remained together as a trio and introduced their exhilarating debut single in late February. It didnt take long for the undeniably catchy Poison to become a pervasive radio and MTV fixture, but its rapid ubiquity had broader significance for the burgeoning new jack swing movement. As new jack swing emerged in the latter half of the 80s, it was a musical style primarily indebted to vocal-based R&B traditions, with hip-hop elements incorporated sparingly at best. Admittedly, the music of the genres preeminent artists like Guy, Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, and the aforementioned Brown, contained echoes of rap, for sure.
But Bell Biv DeVoe was the first act of the new jack swing era to commit more wholeheartedly to infusing hip-hop sensibilities into their music. They proudly defined their sound as hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it, with hip-hop serving as the starting point, not merely an embellishment of their sound. Arguably, the mainstream acceptance that BBD garnered indirectly helped to make hip-hop more palatable to a broader listening audience, while paving the path for hip-hop soul artists like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and TLC, among many others.
Nearly one month after unveiling Poison, BBD released their debut full-length album of the same name. Ill admit that after becoming totally obsessed with the lead single, I never imagined that the rest of BBDs songs could possibly measure up to such lofty expectations. But they did. When I first heard the album, I was hooked. Granted, I was a 12-year old 7th grader at the time, at the peak of my impressionable phase. But the groups music, their style, their ego all of it was impressive to me. During that formative period of socialization when I first began to define my identity relative to my peers, listening to Poison provided me with some much-needed confidence and swagger to counterbalance the invariable awkwardness of pre-teen adolescence.
Along with the megahit Poison, I vividly recall that Dope! and B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)? were mainstay songs at my junior high dances, and the dancefloor would immediately fill whenever the DJ dropped the needle on any one of these tracks. The album is certainly dominated by more uptempo tunes, but the polished ballads When Will I See You Smile Again? and I Do Need You add some welcome, softer balance to the whole affair. And despite the album being shaped by a handful of different producers most notably including The Bomb Squads Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler the album is sonically cohesive. A unified whole, in other words.
I suspect few people would ever claim that Bell is the most powerful vocalist or Bivins and DeVoe are the most gifted emcees. But the caliber of their skills at least relative to others really isnt the point, is it? Whats more important is that together, they had an uncanny knack for crafting fun, memorable songs that still, to this day, have universal appeal. Twenty-five years later, I can recall BBDs lyrics and melodies verbatim. As a matter of fact, just the other day, I found myself randomly singing When Will I See You Smile Again? in lullaby form, as I rocked my 3-month old daughter. And it worked like a charm. She was asleep in my arms within minutes, before I even had a chance to segue seamlessly into Ralph Tresvants Sensitivity.
Poison proved to be Bell Biv DeVoes creative and commercial pinnacle, and their two subsequent albums 1993s Hootie Mack and 2001s BBD never even remotely approached the success of their classic predecessor. Not that it really mattered, as the trio has remained sufficiently productive with plenty of other endeavors. New Edition has periodically reunited both in the studio and on the road throughout the past twenty years, recording a pair of albums (1996s Home Again and 2004s One Love) and orchestrating a 30th anniversary tour in 2012. And many will recall that it was Bivins management firm, Biv Entertainment, that was responsible for introducing Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation to the music world. Whats more, his now-defunct, Motown-supported Biv 10 Records experienced modest success in the mid-1990s developing young R&B acts like 702 and Subway.
The sustained stamina of New Edition is truly a rare and remarkable phenomenon to behold. If you evaluate the groups prolific accomplishments both as a collective and among its individual members in aggregate, Id argue that its not too much of a stretch to consider New Edition as tantamount to, well, The Beatles of soul music. Or if this analogy is too sacrilegious for some to swallow, at the very least, no other act in soul musics history comes as close as New Edition does to warranting such a comparison. And beyond being a thoroughly entertaining album, Bell Biv DeVoes Poison is a crucial component of this indelible legacy and a defining achievement within the greater context of the new jack swing movement.
My Favorite Song: Poison
When Will I See You Smile Again? (1991)
“She’s Dope!” (1990)
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