So I'd like you to meet Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ronnie DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant. As members of New Edition, these four gentlemen made hearts throb in the '80s with such hits as "Candy Girl" and "Cool It Now." In fact, New Edition served as the pop-prototype for every Backstreeter and *NSYNCer in the plague of boy bands that would descend upon North America in the following decade. However, the multitalented teens in New Edition could actually sing, produce hits you can still listen to 20-odd years later, and perform live without lip-synching every word.
But like all the imitators who followed them, each baby-faced member of New Edition played out a specific archetype: Bivins was the serious fellow; Tresvant, the sensitive young man; Bell, the slickster; and DeVoe was "the one most likely to someday become a RE/MAX realtor." (It's true; check him out at www.thedevoeteam.com.)
That still leaves one role to fill: the crazy guy. And the two most-asked questions about New Edition concern that guy: Will he appear at the group's next show? (Answer: No.) And will he be on the next N.E. album? (Answer: Yes . . . allegedly.)
Oh, my bad. Where are my manners? I'd like you to meet Bobby Brown . . .
Robert Beresford Brown was one of the founders of New Edition, but he was also the baby of the group; he wasn't even 15 when they blew up. That might have been why -- behind all the smiling press photos -- he was throwing tantrums and bucking for a solo career, even at the height of the group's mid-'80s success. Then again, he might have been smarter than anyone realized at the time. New Edition couldn't go on singing about candy girls forever, and Bobby -- on the verge of manhood -- got himself voted out of the group in 1987.
King of Stage, Brown's first solo album later that same year, was a New Edition sound-alike that stiffed, but a year later, his second effort, Don't Be Cruel, took the new jack swing that producer Teddy Riley had been incubating with singer Keith Sweat and spread it worldwide. (R&B is still commercially relevant today largely because of new jack, the bridge that connected soul to hip-hop.) Besides, if you're under 30 and you know what the word "prerogative" means, you probably owe that knowledge to Bobby and not to one of your teachers. There was a method to his madness -- even back then.
But people remember most of that stuff. This is what they forget: New Edition didn't pull an *NSYNC when Bobby bolted; the group actually made its best record after he left -- 1988's Heart Break. At one point in the early '90s, Brown, big as he was, represented only a part of the post-New Edition empire. Bell Biv DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant's first solo album, and even "Rub You the Right Way," by Brown's New Edition fill-in, Johnny Gill, each played a tremendous role in making new jack swing.
New Edition was on hiatus during this period, but it's not like it fell off the map either. There were periodic reunions throughout the '90s, including one in 1996 that brought Brown -- soon to be knee-deep in Whitney mania -- back to the fold for an album and tour. It went so well that only four members were around by the end; Bivins and Bobby had left, after their respective posses confronted each other at gunpoint. It's a good thing Johnny Gill was around. In New Edition, the understudy to the crazy guy got such steady work that he became a full-fledged member.
That album and tour were both called Home Again. As in, "You can't go . . ."
Until now, that is.
A decade later, New Edition and Bobby have made up yet again. Why do they keep doing this to themselves? Step into the time machine, set the controls for autumn 2004, and I'll tell you.
That fall, the Bobby-less version of New Edition regrouped on Diddy's Bad Boy label for a new album called One Love. Leave aside the question of whether N.E. could adapt its style to the throwaway pap that made Bad Boy billions -- of course it couldn't. The first two minutes of the disc, titled "Conference Call," demonstrated that a humbled New Edition -- despite previous success without the fiery Brown -- would have to accept a new place in the urban pecking order. Five guys who were making hits when Diddy was still dreaming about being an intern at Uptown Records were basically reduced to waiting for him to call and give them their marching orders.
That moment said a lot about the hip-hop generation's screw-the-past aesthetic. But I'll tell you one thing: It wouldn't have gone down like that if Bobby had been around. Tha dude would have waited about three seconds, then had a limo take him uptown. He would have busted into Diddy's office, gotten into a scrap with three security guards, torn up some bad modern art, and pissed all over the elevator on the way back down. If he could've found where Diddy parked his ride, he would've keyed it -- after he pissed on that too. New Edition would've lost its deal, and One Love would never have come out. And I'll tell you something else: That would've been a good thing, as the messy breakup of N.E. and Diddy later confirmed.
Yes, the members of New Edition can and will make a good living, recording and touring without Brown. Yes, every little step they take occurs in the shadow of Bobby, and that'll only get worse when he officially rejoins, as he reportedly will next year. With all the questions about Bobby and Whitney's inevitable separation, just-as-inevitable reunion, the arrests, the drug use, and the "hell-to-the-naws," the words "New Edition" will come up infrequently, if at all -- at least until the guns are drawn backstage.
New Edition is no longer just about Bobby: Will he or won't he be on this album or tour? It's now about the lunacy of Bobby, plain and simple. That's kinda sad. It's just that the alternative might be worse, because it isn't 1988 anymore. These dudes need the crazy guy in their corner.