"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be appropriate advice for a lot of situations, but as Bobby Brown's "Bobby" (MCA 10417, in record stores tomorrow) demonstrates, album-making isn't necessarily one of them.
Sometimes, change is just what an artist needs.
That certainly seemed the case when Bobby Brown unleashed "Don't Be Cruel" a little over four years ago. Although the former New Edition member had tried to blend rap with R&B on his first solo album, "King of Stage," he didn't really find success until he dumped his old producers and hooked up with new jack genius Teddy Riley and the team of L.A. & Babyface.
"Don't Be Cruel" was definitely a change for the better. Not only did it bring Brown into the mainstream, but it opened the door for crossovers to come, including the no-less-impressive successes of Bell Biv DeVoe, Johnny Gill and, Another Bad Creation and others.
But anyone expecting a similar breakthrough from "Bobby" will be sorely disappointed.
From the way "Humpin' Around" reiterates the synth-driven groove of "My Prerogative" to the "Roni"-style sentimentality of "College Girl," "Bobby" tries just a little too hard to sound like "Son of Don't Be Cruel." And while it's easy to understand why Brown and the bosses at MCA would want to repeat the success of his second album, someone should have told them that Xerox approach applied here isn't the way to do it.
Why not? Because a large part of what made "Don't Be Cruel" so exciting was the music's freshness, while the songs here are often formulaic to the point of predictability. "Two Can Play That Game," for instance, may get up a good head of steam, but the bridge and breakdown are too pro-formula to have much power. Likewise, although the sentiment behind "I'm Your Friend," Brown's duet with Debra Winans, is certainly admirable, the execution is cliched and unconvincing.
(It's also worth wondering why, after spending most of the album boasting about his manly appetites, Brown feels compelled to close the album with a paean to platonic relationships.)
"Bobby" isn't a complete waste of time, of course. Brown's producers -- usually either Riley or L.A. & Babyface -- may not have come up with anything especially earth-shaking, but they're far too professional to fall down on the job. Thus, there's plenty to like about the rhythmic authority of "Get Away," with its booming bass and slick swipe from Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep," just as it's easy to enjoy the electronic shimmer lent the backing vocals in "Til the End of Time." Even "Humpin' Around" has its appeal, despite the deja-vu groove.
Still, not even those moments quite make up for the over-the-top embarrassment of "Something in Common," Brown's hey-we're-married duet with Whitney Houston. What makes this performance irritating isn't so much the extent to which the two flaunt their celebrity -- though if ever a song sounded as if written to add fuel to a People profile this one does -- but the fact that what they have in common clearly isn't a singing style.