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Bell Biv Devoe - Poison Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit a 1990 R&B blockbuster that bridged the gap between new jack swing and hip-hop soul.

They’d been talking about Bell Biv DeVoe for four minutes straight, and Ralph Tresvant was getting pissed. All six members of R&B group New Edition were back together, sitting on BET’s black leather “Video Soul” sofa for an interview, and these three guys who usually sang backup for Ralph—Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe—wouldn’t shut up about their little hip-hop side project.

Tresvant decided to interrupt and set it straight. “Mike keeps stressing BBD—it’s not a BBD moment,” he said. “It’s a New Edition reunion.”

This was 1990, and the trio’s debut single “Poison” was on the verge of breaking into the Top 10. Their album, also called Poison, had just dropped, and it was on its way to selling 4 million copies. By the end of the year, Billboard would declare BBD the biggest new pop group of 1990. It was definitely Bell Biv DeVoe’s moment.

Poison was a conceptually groundbreaking pop album that reinvented the relationship between R&B and hip-hop for the ’90s. BBD even had a neat little mission statement to explain their vision: “Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it.” They stamped the slogan on their album cover and flashed it on screen during their videos. They talked about it in every interview, including that day on BET. The show’s host wasn’t sure what to make of it: “And like...what does that mean?”

Ricky Bell spoke up: “You have to listen to the music to understand what we’re talking about.”

You’ve heard “Poison” too many times, probably at a wedding or a school dance or some perennially bad episode of “Carpool Karaoke.” But Bell Biv DeVoe is more than just a song, and their debut album represents a critical leap in the evolution of R&B. A collaboration with revered Public Enemy production crew the Bomb Squad, Poison embodied the style and sound of hip-hop in a more convincing way than any R&B album before it. For better or worse, Bell Biv DeVoe set the stage for three decades of singers who want to talk, dress, and act like rappers.

Back when he was only 14, Michael Bivins introduced himself to the world with a little rap on New Edition’s 1982 breakout hit “Candy Girl”: “She walks so fast, she looks so sweet/She makes my heart just skip a beat.” The group made smiling, bubble-gum electro-pop, but Bivins had the cool confidence of a rapper, even if he was stuck singing background vocals most of the time. As New Edition grew from boys to men, embracing a sophisticated sound on their 1988 album Heart Break, Bivins was quietly establishing his hip-hop credibility.

On the 1989 single “N.E. Heartbreak,” Mike foreshadowed the BBD attitude with a more aggressive rap style:

Strolled in the party, walked to the bar Playing incognito like I ain’t no star
F-F-Fellas looking jealous
And girlies looking horny
Saw a foxy young lady—her man was corny

In the song’s music video, Bivins rolls through the party with Heavy D as his wingman. Months later, Biv appeared in Eric B. & Rakim’s gritty black-and-white video for “In the Ghetto,” walking down a dark alley with the God MC and his crew. “The engine for Bell Biv DeVoe was Michael Bivins. He had a vision for the group,” said Hank Shocklee, leader of the Bomb Squad and the producer who would help shape Poison. “New Edition was all about wearing suits and dressing upscale. Michael brought it back to the street realm. They really brought out the hip-hop element by wearing Timberland boots and sagging pants. This is what gave the group their visual look.”

At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, New Edition took the stage wearing grown-and-sexy tailored suits—except for Bivins, who was rocking a gold chain, green baseball hat, and baggy green leather pants. He had played his role for seven years, but now that Tresvant and Johnny Gill were going solo, the questions had started: What are you gonna do? Bell and DeVoe were in the same position. As the New Edition tour was ending in the summer of 1989, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis suggested they start a trio: Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe.

Louil Silas Jr., the executive VP of black music at MCA Records, did not want Bell Biv DeVoe to make a rap record. “Louil wanted to have them back in suits like they were still in New Edition,” remembered producer Alton “Wokie” Stewart. Wokie and his partner Timmy Gatling were fresh off producing sophisticated R&B singer Christopher Williams when Silas asked them to record with BBD. The sessions produced a pair of safe, sensitive slow jams, “When Will I See You Smile Again?” and “I Do Need You,” that appear at the end of Poison. They feature zero rapping, a saxophone solo, and a seductive quiet storm monologue.

“(Mainstream black music) doesn’t deal with the kids on the street anymore,” Shocklee said at a black radio conference in 1988. “It’s now being made for people who drive Mercedes, not people who ride the buses.” More and more radio stations were advertising their “no rap” programming policy, despite the fact that young people were buying a ton of rap records. Tone Loc’s 1989 hit “Wild Thing” became the top-selling single of the late ’80s, but one in six radio stations refused to play it because “the program directors dislike rap music or found the song sexually suggestive,” according to Billboard.

Public Enemy was the biggest thing in rap, but their music got no love from quiet storm R&B radio. In 1988, frontman Chuck D wrote a cover story for Black Radio Exclusive, a radio trade magazine, in which he criticized the black radio industry for ignoring hip-hop. “Rap gives you the news on all phases of life, good and bad, pretty and ugly: drugs, sex, education, love, money, war, peace… you name it. R&B doesn’t do that anymore,” said Chuck. “R&B teaches you to shuffle your feet, be laid back, don’t be offensive, don’t make no waves because, look at us! We’re fitting in as well as we can!”

“Hip-hop and R&B were in two separate spheres, two separate universes,” said Shocklee, who invited BBD to work with the Bomb Squad, which also included his brother Keith and programming wiz Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. At their first session in late 1989, Ricky, Mike, and Ron were all dressed up, looking like they came straight from a New Edition show. To break the ice, Keith Shocklee brought them up to the “hip-hop spots” in Harlem to shop for new clothes—jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. When they came back, they were ready to make some rap music.

Based on their strengths, Shocklee assigned them roles: Ricky would be the singer, while Mike and Ronnie would stick to rapping. “For me, it was about crafting a sound [where] the rappers and the singer could co-exist together,” Shocklee remembered in 2015. “The rapping and the singing had to be married together.”

In the ’80s, collaborations between rappers and singers were mostly cookie-cutter—the singer would perform the chorus and verses, and then the rapper would jump in during the break or the intro for a quick verse. The result still still felt like an R&B record, just with a brief rap interlude, as heard on LeVert’s “Just Coolin’” (featuring Heavy D). Some R&B acts had started pulling double duty and adding their own raps, like Bobby Brown on 1989’s “On Our Own,” but it was still very rare for R&B singers to appear on hip-hop songs. BBD’s arrangements broke the rules by pairing rapping and singing together within a single verse, making rap-free radio edits impossible.

The first voice you hear on “Poison” is Kool G Rap, the wildly influential Queens MC who helped create East Coast gangsta rap. G Rap shouts “poison!” at you 38 times throughout the track, a sample from his own 1989 song “Poison.” The voice was like a dog whistle for hip-hop heads that immediately gave BBD a hardcore edge.

The poison in this story is, of course, a woman. On the song’s chorus, Bell warns listeners to “never trust a big butt and a smile,” a line that’s jacked from another hardcore rapper, KRS-One. Mike and Ron both call girls “hoes” in their rap verses—a daring move for two clean-cut boy-band members—while Bell’s doo-wop harmonies keep things civilized. The cool walking bass echoes LL Cool J’s 1987 hit “I’m Bad,” and the iconic rapid-fire snare pattern is a blunt rendition of new jack swing’s signature rhythm.

“Poison” was written and produced by Elliot “Dr. Freeze” Straite, a Brooklyn producer and aspiring artist who shared a manager with BBD. But several musicians have claimed credit for helping to shape the track, including Hank Shocklee. “When it came to me, the record was very mellow and laid back,” Shocklee said. “I had to take it and give it a boost and pump it up. Besides changing kicks and snares, I wanted to make sure it had some power and punch. The drums had to be loud. When you hear the intro to the song, that’s what set the whole song off.”

The Bomb Squad crew only received production credits on three songs, but Shocklee says he actually remixed most of the songs so they would feel more hip-hop and have a cohesive feel. Minus the two out-of-place slow jams at the end of the album, every song on Poison is deeply committed to the mission of hip-hop fusion. The Shocklee-produced “Ain’t Nut’in Changed!” and “Let Me Know Something?!,” are the album’s most overtly hip-hop moments, bringing the golden era’s chopped funk aesthetic to R&B. These aren’t hip-hop-influenced new jack swing beats with typical mega-loud snares and orchestral synth stabs—they’re straight up hip-hop beats with samples flying everywhere and some singing on top.

The highlight of Shocklee’s sessions with the group is “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?,” which became Bell Biv DeVoe’s second No. 1 R&B single. Shocklee created the record after trying to imagine what Teddy Riley would do with BBD, imitating the hype, breakbeat swing of Riley’s hardest-hitting club bangers for Big Daddy Kane, Wreckx-N-Effect, and Heavy D. The lyrics on Poison are largely pretty light-weight party raps, but BBD were not pop rappers like Milli Vanilli or Technotronic—their music feels of the culture. Biv even came through with some slick nautical wordplay:

Yo, I love being a bachelor
Ricky said, “Yo, that girl’s a good catch for ya”
She and I choose to cruise in my love boat
My waterbed, kept us afloat

When it came to BBD’s controversial hit “Do Me!,” DeVoe swiped his lyrics without permission from an aspiring teen rapper named Busta Rhymes who he’d met the studio with Shocklee. Musically, the song is a pretty typical new jack swing affair, but lyrically, it pushed the envelope of sexuality in R&B. Ron—who was 22 at the time—tells a story about committing statutory rape (“backstage, underage, adolescent...”), while Mike brings some light S&M to the party: “Ooh, that booty/Smack it up, flip it, rub it down, oh no!” It’s hard to ignore three horny dudes chanting “do me, bay-bayy” with orgasmic moans as background vocals.

The song was a huge hit, despite disrupting R&B’s polite, euphemistic relationship with sex. The “smack it up” line in particular prevented some radio stations from playing “Do Me!,” but the song still received heavy rotation on MTV and went to No. 3 on the Hot 100. “This time we chose not to bite our tongues,” Bivins told [SPIN] in 1990. “This is us, we’re just speaking words that we hear every day.”

The obscenity trial surrounding 2 Live Crew had reframed hip-hop’s explicit sexuality as a free speech issue. If BBD wanted to be “mentally hip-hop,” they had to find some way to align themselves with hip-hop’s confrontational cool. And as three former teen heartthrobs who had grown up singing love songs, making the leap to sex songs was the most believable way for them court controversy.

The music video for another hit, “She’s Dope!,” where they compare the object of their affection to a “sexy X-rated video queen,” features a scene where Bell pours a bottle of champagne on a woman’s breasts. Selling sex was BBD’s way of asserting their masculinity, and, as is often the case, women were caught in the crossfire. “Poison” might be a transcendent party song, but its low-point is DeVoe’s mean-spirited, hypocritical assessment of a woman who’s slept around:

The low-pro ho, she’ll be cut like an afro
So what cha sayin’, huh?
She’s a winner to you
But I know she’s a loser
How do you know?
Me and the crew used to do her

BBD not only gave R&B singers permission to talk like rappers, they proved that baggy pants, dope beats, and a little casual misogyny could turn you into a huge crossover pop star. At the time, R&B needed to break free from the stale love-song conventions, but we now live in a world where Chris Brown has everyone singing “these hoes ain’t loyal” at the Soul Train Awards. Hip-hop contains multitudes, and Bell Biv DeVoe chose not to co-opt rap’s Afrocentric identity politics, its clever multi-layered lyricism, or its criticism of systemic racism. The fact that they mostly chose to co-opt hip-hop’s misogyny—and the fact that it made them even more famous—shows what entertains us as a culture.

Ralph Tresvant still did not understand BBD’s crossover appeal. “That’s weird to me, man. We’re all from New Edition. White folks eat up Bell Biv DeVoe, but [when] we’re together, they scratch their heads,” he said in the wake of their success. Along with Tone Loc, Young MC, and MC Hammer, BBD helped usher hip-hop into mainstream radio rotation, clearing the way for white-privilege beneficiary Vanilla Ice to score the first No. 1 rap hit in the fall of 1990. And like hair metal’s death at the hands of grunge, hip-hop’s rise rendered many veteran R&B acts irrelevant—especially those who weren’t capable of adopting the sound and style of rap.

Bell Biv DeVoe weren’t the first to inject hip-hop into R&B. But they were the first to suggest that the two genres could be one in the same, predicting the rise of modern genre-fluid hip-hop/R&B superstars like Missy Elliot, Black Eyed Peas, and Drake. BBD’s slogan—mentally hip-hop, smoothed-out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal—sounded crazy in 1990, but today, it sounds like a prophecy.

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