The Definitive Collection
h, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. Mr. Brown is a Grammy winner (1989, Best Male R&B; Vocal for “Every Little Step”), has hit #1 on Billboard’s R&B; Singles chart six times (six!), and is a fairly indisputable R&B; legend—there’s no other word for it—thanks to both his supernova of a solo career and his time in New Edition. And yet he’s best-known for myriad appearances on the covers of various and sundry tabloids, for being Mr. Whitney Houston, and for that horrific car crash of a reality series that was last summer’s Being Bobby Brown (which largely served to show the world that Whit can be just as ghetto as she wanna be). It’s high time for rehab—for his musical reputation, that is—and the new Definitive Collection does the trick just fine.
Bobby’s first compilation, 2000’s Greatest Hits, is fairly complete—all 14 of its selections are included amongst Definitive’s 18 tracks—but its tracklisting is scattered chronologically, which just won’t do. Last year’s entry in the 20th Century Masters series is too brief, just 11 songs. This latest comp is his most comprehensive, and thoroughly earns the title Definitive. (I’m fully aware that a reviewer noting the accuracy of a compilation labeled Ultimate, Essential, Definitive, etc., is often annoying; I’m also aware that with so many comps flooding the market these days, the distinction is a crucial one.)
First off, this album includes New Edition songs. Just two, mind you—opening with 1984’s Ray Parker, Jr.-helmed “Mr. Telephone Man,” and adding in the ’96 reunion track “You Don’t Have to Worry” (co-written and -produced by Diddy)—but it’s a very smart move, a way of putting brackets around Brown’s career. The only songs which follow “You Don’t Have to Worry” are “Feelin’ Inside,” a somewhat undercooked track from Brown’s 1997 Forever album (remember how well that album title worked for Diddy and the Spice Girls?), and Ja Rule’s 2002 single “Thug Lovin’,” to which Brown contributed vocals and which is superb (Brown’s sweetly thugged-out vocals perfectly complement Ja’s faux-thug R&B; it’s more than arguable that Ja is the ‘90s/’00s manifestation of Brown as a rapper).
Most of the rest you likely know, save perhaps the singles from King of Stage, Brown’s solo debut: the sweetly romantic “Girlfriend” (#1 R&B;, #57 pop, and featuring syrupy sax from an ersatz Kenny G—it was 1986, after all) and the romantically sweet, albeit a bit tougher, “Girl Next Door” (#31 R&B;). Then, for most of the remainder of The Ultimate Collection, it’s nothing but hit after hit. Starting with the alarmingly gorgeous “Don’t Be Cruel,” which manages to come off soft and hard at the same time, the smashes come fast and furious. In the same way that Jam & Lewis were to Janet, L.A. Reid and Babyface may have been to Bobby. They gave him not only “Cruel,” but also the superlative ballads “Roni” and “Rock Wit’cha,” the Grammy-winning “Every Little Step,” “On Our Own” (from Ghostbusters II—the best thing about that movie), nice ‘n’ nasty “Humpin’ Around” (Bobby so wanted to be the pre-R. Kelly, and kind of was) and “Good Enough,” every one of them a top 5 R&B; single. What L.A. and ‘Face couldn’t (or didn’t) give Brown was, essentially, his theme song, the world-conquering colossus that was “My Prerogative.” That came from new jack swing inventor Teddy Riley’s camp, along with a spate of singles from 1992’s too-long-in-the-making follow-up to Don’t Be Cruel, Bobby (cf. the slinky “Get Away” and the airy duet with Whitney, “Something In Common”). Hell, in this relentless context, even Glenn Medeiros’ #1 pop single “She Ain’t Worth It” (included here thanks to a guest rap from Brown), while identikit new jack swing of its moment, comes off as joyously buoyant, an unavoidable sing-a-long.
All too soon, the hits dried up—Bobby was reportedly the epitome of difficult, and believed too much of his press (or, alternately, was all-too-eager to live down to its falsehoods). Much like Michael Jackson, after his explosion as a musical megastar, Brown couldn’t adjust to the pop (or R&B;, even) world he left in his wake. But that’s really of no bearing here; what’s important to know is that in his day, Brown really was the King, and The Definitive Collection proves it. I mean, who else could pull off a song titled “Roni” and make you believe it?
Reviewed by: Thomas Inskeep
Reviewed on: 2006-05-12