It has been four years since Bobby Brown released his breakthrough 1988 solo album, Don’t Be Cruel, but ”Humpin’ Around,” the unstoppable first single from his new album, Bobby (MCA), makes it seem like mere minutes. Throbbing and claustrophobic, the song picks up where Brown’s crossover smash, ”My Prerogative,” left off. Yet it’s denser and edgier. Brown sounds both confused and guarded as he tries to reconcile a love affair, and the boogie-down-the- Nile synthesizer riff, courtesy of producers L.A. Reid, Babyface, and Daryl Simmons, slams into the melody like a boxing glove hitting a punching bag.
If the album lived up to that kick start, Brown’s comeback would be complete. Instead, it stalls. What made Brown’s music alluring was his dual role as cocky new jack swinger and smooth-talking love man; Brown was both a charmer and a con, and his voice oozed confidence. He still sounds confident on Bobby, and the album in general is warmer than Don’t Be Cruel. It presents an older, more well fed, and perhaps wiser Brown, who coos to his new bride, Whitney Houston, in a bouncy duet, ”Something in Common”; in another song, he pleads for the world to come together. The cockiness that drove ”My Prerogative,” ”Every Little Step,” and even his Ghostbusters II theme, ”On Our Own,” is largely absent, replaced by music that is sleek, catchy, immaculate, and mostly upbeat, not unlike-surprise-a Whitney Houston album.
Reid, Babyface, Simmons, and Teddy Riley, who among them produced the bulk of Bobby, certainly give Brown reason to be happy. Tracks like ”Good Enough” and especially the slinky ”Two Can Play That Game” have a rich, frothy bounce, with chanting backup singers rebounding off rubbery drums and chunky synthesizers; they swing effortlessly. The ballads are a little formulaic- these producers can program them in their sleep-but deft production touches go a long way. On the elongated fade of the pillow-talk ”One More Night,” Riley pits Brown’s pleading voice against a plush choir and shifting hip-hop drumbeats to hypnotic effect. And on that track and others, the wistfulness in Brown’s voice harks back to his New Edition days.
You keep waiting for Brown to bolt through these immaculate surfaces, to throw himself in your face with some naughty vocal ticks. But with few exceptions-the way his voice drops to a low Teddy Pendergrass growl in ”Pretty Little Girl”-it rarely happens; he’s too busy pledging his love on ”Til the End of Time.” Even when he leers at younger women in ”Pretty Little Girl” and ”College Girl,” he seems halfhearted.
That banality is the most disturbing aspect of Bobby. The last few years have been troubling ones for Brown, who has sired three children out of wedlock, been dogged by rumors of drug abuse, and had to deal with the pressure of following up Don’t Be Cruel. There are moments on Bobby when he appears to address those stories, true or not: ”There’s gotta be a way for me to escape all this nonsense,” he sings longingly in ”Get Away,” a delicious slice of Earth, Wind & Fire-style pop. It’s hard to begrudge Brown a sense of marital or spiritual bliss. But in its determination to prove true love conquers all, Bobby denies Brown his pain, and therefore his art. B-