Bobby Brownâs âDonât Be Cruelâ Turns 25
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Prerogative” and “I’ll Be Good to You,” musical arranger Bernard Belle told writer Andrew Knyte, “Bobby Brown was a ball of energy, and he was never tired. In the studio, if you told him to do something and it didn’t come out right, he’d be willing to do it over and over and over again. He was going to do whatever it took to get the project done when he was in the studio while we were recording for the Don’t Be Cruel album. That’s the best way to describe Bobby back then—he was hungry.”

While Bobby was jetting between coasts, putting in the hours to complete his project, MCA staff barely realized the boy was working at all. “There was no buzz in the office about the Bobby Brown record,” states publicist Juanita Stephens. “In fact, Don’t Be Cruel and New Edition’s new album [N.E. Heartbreak] was set to ship the same day. Anticipation was high for New Edition, but I had to be fair to both.”

When Don’t Be Cruel was released on June 20, the record was so strong it gave 19-year-old Bobby a whole new identity. He wasn’t a kid anymore. The power and greatness of that music defined a new movement in Black pop. Although a few months later he became the opening act on the N.E. Heartbreak Tour (also featuring Al. B. Sure!, Troop and Levert), as Don’t Be Cruel neared the triple-platinum mark, Bobby started headlining his own worldwide tour.

Some nights, he’d be on stage non-stop for nearly three hours. Strolling out in a bowler hat and dripping with gold chains, Brown’s show was all about music and seduction. “To see Bobby Brown on stage was like watching James Brown, Jackie Wilson and [Russian ballet dancer Vaslav] Nijinsky all at once,” says Barry Michael Cooper. “His shows left me speechless.”

Putting the same energy into his videos for “My Prerogative” and “Every Little Step” (the song that won him a Grammy in 1990) just made him that much more popular. Driving the mostly female crowd into frenzies with his intense choreography and poetry of the pelvis, Bobby was in his glory.

Still, even if he was trying to soulfully mack the girls, the guys in the audience also loved Bobby because he came off like your badass little brother or bugged-out homeboy. Unfortunately, he seemingly didn’t have the same kind of creative discipline to maintain his success.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Bobby went from being an untouchable superstar to becoming a public spectacle as drug accusations between he and Whitney Houston became popular tabloid fodder. In addition, there were numerous arrests, crazed incidents, drunken outbursts and an attempt to murder him in his hometown of Boston. His brother-in-law Steven Sealy was killed, gunned down in Whitney Houston’s Bentley while Bobby sat in the passenger seat.

After courting and marrying the late pop diva in 1992, things only got worse. “Bobby’s private life was also his public life,” explains Cooper. “Bobby was not able to sustain his career because it almost seemed that not only did he not duck scandal, he invited it. Scandal was both his badge of honor and his scarlet letter. Somewhere along the way, he could not differentiate between the two.”

While Bobby Brown might’ve become the Sly Stone of the new jack generation, there’s no denying the cultural impact of Don’t Be Cruel. While Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown and Drake often cite Michael Jackson as their main influence, it’s obvious they all owe heavy stylistic debts to Bobby Brown.

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for VibeUptownEssenceXXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter