1989: Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel

In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.

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1989: Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel

“I wanted to be raw, I wanted to be in their face, and I want people to buy this record because what cause of the energy it was like letting me out of the cage.”

That’s Bobby Brown talking to Robin Roberts in a 2016 ABC News interview about the intention behind his second album, Don’t Be Cruel which after a slow start eventually, generated five Top 10 hits, sold seven million copies, and become 1989’s best-selling album. The cage Brown was referring to was New Edition, the R&B boy band he had been in since he was a kid. Marketed as an ‘80s version of the Jackson 5, these boys from Boston had instant success with their style of bubblegum R&B dance-pop flavored with rapping. But as he got older, Brown began to chafe under group control cultivating a bad boy image often doing his own dance routines in concerts while feeling like he was being ripped off by the group’s management leading to a messy split with differing stories coming out on whether Brown left or was voted out.

Once free from New Edition, Brown got right to work on a solo career singing to New Edition’s label MCA and releasing his first album King of Stage in 1986. The album was not the start he was hoping for peaking at #88 with its lead single “Girlfriend” peaking on the Hot 100 at #57 though it did go to #1 on the R&B charts. Listening to “Girlfriend,” you can see why Bobby Brown didn’t pop out right away as a solo act. The song is typical of the smooth slow jam R&B that was popular in the ’80s and while it sounds fine, it’s not exactly an exciting debut. Bobby Brown needed a new sound and style to introduce himself as a star outside of New Edition.

While figuring out a new sound for his second album, Brown found himself working with producers and writers like LA Reid, Babyface, and Teddy Riley who together were helping to bring forward a new style that would define R&B at the turn of the ‘90s. New jack swing was coined in 1987 by Village Voice writer Barry Michael Cooper in a profile he did on Teddy Riley. The genre consists of hard-hitting percussive beats that combine elements of R&B with hip-hop and dance music for an exciting combination. For Bobby Brown, new jack swing proved to be the ideal vehicle for him to break out of his teen star image with the music emphasizing attitude and confidence that highlighted his performance. 

As an album, Don’t Be Cruel follows in the grand tradition of former boy band members releasing music that makes the public see them as a more mature and adult artist than their previous work. Like Michael Jackson before and Justin Timberlake after, Bobby Brown set out to distance himself from his teen pop past by partnering with the hottest producers who together come up with an exciting sound that showcases their mature style. It works here for the most part. 

The best song on Don’t Be Cruel is easily its biggest hit, the #1 “My Prerogative,” where the hard-hitting new jack swing production and Bobby Brown’s arrogant swagger come together to create an honest to God banger where Brown gives the middle fingers to his haters that still manages to resonate. And when you look at the videos with Brown’s energetic dancing, you can see why he got so big. He had it. From there, the album suffers from the issue of not being able to live up to the big hit. This isn’t saying that Don’t Be Cruel is a bad album outside of “My Prerogative.” The productions from Reid and Babyface are still on point and Brown still brings a lot of energy to his performance. It’s just that the rest of the songs don’t live up to that excitement that the song promises.

There are more upbeat jams on Don’t Be Cruel with the title track and “Every Little Step” but the album is more reliant on slow jams and ballads that combined with the often long running times of the songs just lose me after a while. Another issue for me is the rapping. Bobby Brown was not strictly speaking a rapper but he sprinkles in rapping on his songs and in terms of his public persona and performances certainly carried himself like a rapper. Considering new jack swing was partly inspired by hip-hop, it’s no surprise someone like Brown would do a little rapping. The problem with it is that his rapping has this amateurish cringe quality that sounds embarrassing to listen to now. This was a time when rap was just breaking into the mainstream and many non-rap artists began incorporating rapping to accommodate this new landscape and Don’t Be Cruel definitely sounds like that moment.

Don’t Be Cruel was one of those albums that didn’t take off immediately after being released in June 1988 with the title track being the lead-off single. “Don’t Be Cruel,” the song, didn’t hit its #8 peak til October. Not long after “My Prerogative” went to #1 in January 1989, the album would reach #1 for six weeks. From there, Don’t Be Cruel became a major phenomenon with Bobby Brown becoming the year’s biggest pop star. Brown was so big in 1989 that he contributed a couple of songs to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack including the #2 hit “On My Own” while Don’t Be Cruel was still spinning off hits.

Brown wouldn’t replicate the massive success of Don’t Be Cruel but he stayed active in music for the next few years. In 1990, he provided a rap guest verse on Glenn Mederios’ “She Ain’t Worth It” which set the template for rap guest verses on pop songs that many more would utilize in the decades ahead. But when Brown came back with his new album Bobby in 1992, the new jack swing era he helped to personify had begun to fade. Bobby did launch two Top 10 hits (“Humpin’ Around” and “Good Enough”) but the album wound up selling only two million copies. It was clear pop music was passing him by.

After his imperial period ended, Brown experienced one last moment of pop success when he got back together with New Edition for their 1996 album Home Again which yielded more hits including their highest-charting hit, the #3 peaking “Hit It Off.” But their tour for the album didn’t go over well with old tensions flaring up again and Brown’s drug addictions getting in the way leading to fights backstage with Brown leaving the group again halfway through the tour. Brown has since gotten back together with New Edition and continues to tour with them to this day.

Of course, music isn’t the only thing Bobby Brown has been known for. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, the height of his fame, Brown met and fell in love with Whitney Houston just as she was booed for her nominations from Black audiences who felt she had sold out to a white audience. The two married in 1992 and would become infamous for their abusive nature and addictions. Brown also found himself in the news constantly for his many arrests. Brown and Houston’s marriage culminated in the 2005 Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown which from what I’ve heard showed people just how unhealthy their marriage was. Being Bobby Brown only lasted a season with Brown and Houston finally divorcing in 2007.

The past decade has seen Brown encountering lots of personal tragedy most notably with his ex-wife Houston dying in 2012 with lots of people blaming Brown for introducing Houston to drugs and thereby causing her downfall and death. If that wasn’t enough, his daughter with Whitney, Bobbi Kristina, died in 2015 at only 22 while his son Bobby Jr. died in 2020 at the age of 29. But in that time, he has remarried with more children while also publishing a memoir. Alongside his New Edition tours, Brown was a contestant last year on Fox’s hugely gimmicky hit celebrity talent show The Masked Singer where he performed as the Crab. Brown has had his fair share of controversies in his career but considering the kinds of people The Masked Singer has had on lately, he’s certainly not the most controversial celebrity to appear on that show.

Next time: Janet Jackson sets chart records and comes out of her brother’s shadow with her massive Rhythm Nation 1814

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