#LongPlayLove: Celebrating 25 Years of Bell Biv DeVoe’s ‘Poison’ [FULL ALBUM STREAM]

IMAGE_soulhead_long_play_love_BBD_Poison_03_20_90By Justin Chadwick | @justin_chadwick

Happy 25th Anniversary to Bell Biv DeVoe’s debut LP Poison, originally released March 20, 1990.

It’s hard to believe, but more than thirty years have passed since five precociously talented young gentlemen released their debut album together as New Edition. 1983’s Candy Girl marked the official beginning of the Boston-bred group’s 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 Don’t Be Cruel – amazingly released by MCA Records on the same day the label released New Edition’s 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, Don’t 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.

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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 didn’t 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 genre’s 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.

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Nearly one month after unveiling “Poison,” BBD released their debut full-length album of the same name. I’ll admit that after becoming totally obsessed with the lead single, I never imagined that the rest of BBD’s 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 group’s 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 Squad’s 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 isn’t the point, is it? What’s 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 BBD’s 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 Tresvant’s “Sensitivity.”

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Poison proved to be Bell Biv DeVoe’s creative and commercial pinnacle, and their two subsequent albums – 1993’s Hootie Mack and 2001’s 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 (1996’s Home Again and 2004’s 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. What’s 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 group’s prolific accomplishments – both as a collective and among its individual members – in aggregate, I’d argue that it’s 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 music’s history comes as close as New Edition does to warranting such a comparison. And beyond being a thoroughly entertaining album, Bell Biv DeVoe’s 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”

Bonus Videos:

“When Will I See You Smile Again?” (1991)

“She’s Dope!” (1990)

BUY Bell Biv Devoe – PoisonStream Here:

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