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Bell Biv DeVoe- Three Stripes(2017)

When New Edition members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe broke out on their own at the dawning of the 1990s with their self-described variety of “mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it” music, the trio set a cutting-edge precedent for barrier-breaking radio hits in the decade that followed. Backed by the writing and production talents of Dr. Freeze and Carl Bourelly—as well as the remixing prowess of Wolf & Epic, Bell Biv DeVoe assimilated soul-tinged vocals with street-savvy raps on trend-setting hits like “Poison,” “Do Me!” and “She’s Dope!” But after selling over four million units of their debut album in the U.S. alone, the guys had a hard time maintaining the creative freshness and commercial success with subsequent releases, 1993’s Hootie Mack and 2001’s BBD.

15 years (and several New Edition reunions) later, BBD is aiming to recapture its prime-time glory with Three Stripes, a 10-song collection that hints at the variety of genres intermixed on Poison—with a slightly updated approach. Given the longstanding impact of the group’s initial hit streak with fans who grew up with them (and their ongoing enthusiasm for all things N.E.-related), Ricky, Mike, and Ron don’t have to start from scratch again—as many acts would after such a long absence. Whether or not their new material will have the power to reach today’s younger audiences, though, remains to be seen.

The songs on Three Stripes do possess some of the basic style-fusing elements that brought BBD to the forefront 25 years ago. Cuts such as “Find a Way” and “Hot Damn” painlessly blend poppy hooks with strong R&B- and hip-hop-based rhythmic structures. While the production values aren’t as high as those on earlier albums, they’re generally in line with contemporary standards for airplay-driven fare, and the vocals are certainly a notch above what many acts in the market are offering. The single, “Run,” which preceded the set last fall, meanwhile, is more of a straight-ahead hip-hop-soul entry, bringing to mind prevalent sounds of the early-2000s when the fellas dropped their final single on Michael’s Biv 10 label, “Da Hot Sh**.”

Though BBD fared well with the ballads “When Will I See You Again?” and “Something in Your Eyes” during the early ‘90s, uptempo fare has consistently been the unit’s strong suit. That remains the case on Three Stripes, with the aforementioned tracks—as well as the kinetically enticing “I’m Betta”—standing out as the set’s strongest selections. The slower and midtempo moments, including a collaboration with SWV (“Finally”) and the bedroom-eyes creeper “All Dat There,” tend to wander melodically after a minute or two, and the vocals don’t feel as motivated.

Notably, BBD joins forces with Boyz II Men (which Bivins introduced to the world at large in 1991) on the nostalgic, ‘70s-inspired “One More Try.” The sample-etched number’s atmospheric backing arrangement fits snugly with BIIM’s and Ricky’s earnest delivery and DeVoe’s distinctive rhyming. Closing out the album, the mellow, mid-paced “Incredible” maintains a throwback vibe and is essentially a solo spot for Ricky. His performance here is the strongest on Three Stripes, and is a nice treat for devoted fans who enjoyed his independently released 2000 CD.

Overall, Three Stripes is a solid return for an offshoot of a superstar group that many wrote off long ago as a product of a specific time period. Those who were disappointed with the hardcore direction of BBD will find a more balanced presentation here that takes more of the trio’s fan base into consideration. Producers Brandon Alexander, Rico Anderson, Ivan Barias, DJ Kay Gee, and DJ Ogee can’t quite match the groundbreaking nature of Poison, but have done a commendable job of bringing Bell Biv DeVoe back in a relevant way with tasty ear candy that fits comfortably into their musical timeline. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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