New Edition had been pushed as being “the next Jackson 5” from the beginning, for they were five young kids, based out of Boston, who not only had the great vocals, but had catchy songs to prove it. “Candy Girl”, “Popcorn Love”, “Is It The End”, “Cool It Now” and “Mr. Telephone” were all massive hits on the R&B charts, with “Cool It Now” making a small but significant dent on the pop charts. When Ralph Tresvant busted out with a surprise rap during the song’s second half, it immediately showed how they were a generation apart from the Jackson 5, that these were 80′s kids who loved that new “urban music”. The video was edited in a way where, when Tresvant spoke about Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike, you began to feel more of a collective attitude amongst them, and an individual side too. When “Mr. Telephone Man”, that brought Boby Brown to the forefront. His voice was lower and that would change the perception of who would become the big star from the group. After wanting a much bigger role in the group and having disputes with how that was being handled, Brown was confident to leave the group and start his solo career, with “Girlfriend” and “Girl Next Door” bringing him to the forefront of the next phase of soul/R&B in the late 80′s. But it would be his second album that would make him a superstar.
That would lead to a few New Edition albums were Brown was clearly on the cover, but he chose to not participate in the videos for singles that were on it. Those albums, supervised by then-manager Maurice Starr, included a Christmas album and a record of classic soul and R&B songs. Perhaps the idea suited Starr more than New Edition themselves, maybe the idea was that it would be listened to by the parents or grandparents of their fans, or maybe it was a bit of damage control to show the group was nice and clean, compared to some of Brown’s public disputes at the time. The internal battles would eventually lead the group to give manager Starr the boot, which coincided with the group being adults and wanting to show a more refined sound that wasn’t based on bubble-gum soul. For that, they returned the group to a quintet when they brought in Washington, DC vocalist Johnny Gill, who had released two albums on Atlantic. Gill’s success was limited to the East Coast and parts of the midwest, it did not give him a name just yet but his entry in New Edition would change that. Then to push the new era of New Edition, they hired two of the hottest producers in music at the time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, to put together their “grown” album. They realized their success with Janet Jackson had turned her from being the young Jackson sister and “Penny” from Good Times, to Janet, Miss Jackson only if you were nasty. The formula was created, and now it was time to put it into gear.
MCA Records came out with “If It Isn’t Love” as the first single off of Heart Break, featuring a music video that showed the group about to go into a studio to practice their dance moves for a possible performance. In time, we see that they are polished, the routine is tight, and they eventually run towards the stage. When fans saw this, with a sound that seemed so far ahead from their “Candy Girl” days, people went nuts. It wasn’t kids trying to sound grown up, these were grown ups ready to rock the world. When people went to the store to buy the single, it came with this picture sleeve.
The look was new, it was def, it was fresh, it was “now”. It introduced Johnny Gill to the group, and the swagger each of them had was their way of saying “look at us. We’re young, we’re bad ass, we’re clean. Ladies, it’s time to dig us legitimately.” This wasn’t graduation, this was a sign of achievement and success, and you had to slap on that 45 to hear what that sounded like, even though you could see the video over and over. When Heart Break was released, it would renew their status as one of the best vocal groups of the 80′s, if not ever.
One thing fans may not realize is that Heart Break and Don’t Be Cruel were released on the same day: June 20, 1988. For me, my days in high school were over, and I was about to move on with the world as a grown-up. I’m sure New Edition had that in mind too with their fans, who were of all ages but many of them were growing up along with the group. Their successes may have been distinctly different, and most likely it was Brown who did everything to prove a point: that he could be a star on his own and that HE was the star of the group. New Edition had everything to prove too, and they were not going to slow down their mission without a fight. If anything, it was a friendly challenge and fans liked both sides. Gill was able to show how different his vocals were from Brown’s and Tresvant’s, with co-leads in “Can You Stand The Rain” and “N.E. Heartbreak”, and his presence with the group showed he coudl fit in with their style and finesse without a problem.
It may have been a renewal for New Edition, but it was merely a continuation of their talents, leading to bigger success for the group as a whole and individually (especially Bivins, who would not only help to form Bell Biv DeVoe with “the other” New Edition members, but would have his own production team and record label, which would lead to the discovery and success of Boyz II Men. When I look at this picture sleeve, I see a group about to walk down a path of incredible music and success for the next few years.