El DeBarge - Second Chance (2010)

El DeBarge
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Lately the word "comeback" has been used to describe just about any musician who has taken a hiatus longer than two years, and it's a word that definitely needs to be re-defined, because in its essence, "comeback" doesn't simply mean "I'm back," but it means "I'm back...and I'm stronger than I was before." Whitney Houston was graced with such reverential terminology in 2009 for her highly-anticipated I Look to You album, but her shutout at the Grammys - even after her label decided to push the release date back to make qualification deadlines - was a lesson learned for critics who ambiguously called her return a "comeback."

With sixteen years of complete silence and a trying ‘Exodus' period marred with a two-year term in prison and years of drug abuse, El DeBarge, now 49, most likely was never considered to be on the shortlist of anticipated "comebacks." It's almost impossible to believe that a person once blessed with amazing, angelic pipes and with an ability to score R

Lately the word "comeback" has been used to describe just about any musician who has taken a hiatus longer than two years, and it's a word that definitely needs to be re-defined, because in its essence, "comeback" doesn't simply mean "I'm back," but it means "I'm back...and I'm stronger than I was before." Whitney Houston was graced with such reverential terminology in 2009 for her highly-anticipated I Look to You album, but her shutout at the Grammys - even after her label decided to push the release date back to make qualification deadlines - was a lesson learned for critics who ambiguously called her return a "comeback."

With sixteen years of complete silence and a trying ‘Exodus' period marred with a two-year term in prison and years of drug abuse, El DeBarge, now 49, most likely was never considered to be on the shortlist of anticipated "comebacks." It's almost impossible to believe that a person once blessed with amazing, angelic pipes and with an ability to score R&B classics like "Time Will Reveal" and "I Like It" could slide his way back into the studio after a decade of quietness and reclaim the splendor of his former glory, as if he was totally restored. With the burden of proof resting on his shoulders, DeBarge unexpectedly surprised thousands of households via the BET Awards. For ten minutes at least, the lite-brite crooner with Motown training on his resume grasped the attention of all eyes, ears and mouths as he paraded through an unforgettable medley of DeBarge favorites like "All This Love" and "Rhythm of the Night." No one seriously believed DeBarge had the potency to reclaim his entitlement for a comeback, but that night in June sealed the deal. He also premiered his testimonial song, "Second Chance;" the appropriately-titled lead single and the title cut from his new album. With its inspirational interpretation leaning towards redemption and his pitch-perfect serenading of the chorus ("So tonight I lay me down to sleep/I pray my soul to keep/And that your love will rescue me/For the rest of my life, I live to say goodbye/To all the promises left behind/Here we are, you and I/ A second chance"), it was in that moment that DeBarge unequivocally exonerated himself from his failures and had us all believing in hope again.

Second Chance, El Debarge's fifth studio album, garners up a strong staff of seasoned and newcomer songwriters/producers with Ron Fair, the Avila Brothers, Mike City, Michael Angelo, Mischke, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. And the slate of songs given to him, with DeBarge co-writing much of the playlist, is just as impressive. The Faith Evans-supported "Lay With You" is layered with a creamy melody, nostalgic ‘90's contemporary soul and a definite return to the sexy midtempo suites harnessed tightly on the DeBarge catalog. Ne-Yo balladry surrounds "Feels Like Heaven," "Joyful" indulges in Phyllis Hyman harmonics and "Close to You," containing DeBarge's signature falsetto swoops and sultry strings, puts the spotlight on dancefloor romance. And then there's the lovely flashback to DeBarge's songcraft on tracks like "Serenade," which uses "I Like It" features.

Rapper cameos add a strong, digestible contrast against DeBarge's sensitive vocals and his Marvin Gaye-esque tapestry. On "Format," DeBarge's sweet swooning against 50 Cent's cool rhymes provide the kind of embellishments that once anchored Diddy-meets-112 offerings from the ‘90's. Fabolous joins the singer on "5 Seconds" and teases the uptempo groove with some satisfying emcee protocol ("Some of y'all don't know a butterfly from a moth/Turn the El DeBarge on, take something off").

DeBarge never uses the guest spots as marketing ploys to get additional urban cred, as he certainly proves to be the captain on board. Still, some will question their presence since DeBarge is capable of holding down the fort on his own. Well, why not have a rapper or two on deck? Get a good hip-hop compilation and you're bound to hear 2Pac sampling "A Dream" on "I Ain't Mad At Cha" or "Stay With Me" being heard on Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance." Add up all the other rappers and hip-hop royalty (Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo Ashanti, Nelly, Mariah Carey) that took pride investing in DeBarge's stock, and you're bound to see just how influential DeBarge's music was to hip-hop. Having the hip-hop community on board for the ride feels as if El Debarge has come full circle; now rejuvenated with the love and admiration of his peers.

Towards the middle of the album, some of the energy dries out due to redundant patterns of midtempo pacing, even though "5 Seconds" somehow interrupts the spell. But the ballads are what DeBarge specializes in, and he proves that as the album gallops onward. "Sad Songs" shows off his high range on a song reminiscent of Toni Braxton heartbreak. And on "The Other Side," sounding like a merging of Maxwell's "A Woman's Worth" with Luther Vandross's "The Other Side of the World," Jam & Lewis plant DeBarge's voice in an escapist environment full of silky sexiness and unbridled passion while exploring an unusual course of a breakup anthem; a perfect representation that love songs can sound orgasmic without all the showy bedroom nuances and machismo ego stroking.

After stepping away from his family birthright to go solo in the mid-‘80's, DeBarge did land on a top10 pop hit with "Who's Johnny," but despite his leap from Motown to Warner, he never was able to produce the kind of albums that stood up to the work he delivered with his family. Now transplanted in an era where new generation singers like Ne-Yo and Robin Thicke have been extensively influenced by him, DeBarge's perfectly-timed return to R&B with Second Chance seems like a chapter out of an overlooked Oscar-certified script bound for Hollywood. His three-octave range is in tip-top shape, as angelic and confident as ever, and he relentlessly proves - even after a sixteen-year gap - that he hasn't lost his edge. If anything, he's discovered some new songwriting powers - even a fountain of youth - earning the comeback kid his best album so far and one of the year's best R&B albums. [Tis the season to be jolly: a three-song bonus EP, full of holiday treats like "Silent Night" and the all-new "Christmas Without You," comes with the November compact disc version.]  Highly Recommended

 

By J. Matthew Cobb

 
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