RALPH TRESVANT (1990)
DISCLAIMER: Before we even get into this, I have to state the obvious and get it out of the way. Ralph Tresvant had been listening to Michael Jackson. In fact, Ralph sounds like Michael Jackson if he were drugged on Ritalin or Nyquil. If Michael was half sleep and tried to sing, he would sound like Ralph Tresvant. So, if you don't like Michael Jackson's music, then you probably won't like this album, because Michael's influence is all over the place. Just giving you the heads up. But hey, I love Michael Jackson, so this makes the album even more of a fun ride.
By late 1990, the R&B world was awaiting the highly anticipated solo album from Ralph Tresvant, the cozy-voiced lead singer of New Edition. His bandmates Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and Bel Biv DeVoe were topping the charts left and right with their individual projects.
Bobby Brown became the "Bad Boy of R&B," BBD grabbed a hold of the hip hop culture, and Johnny Gill followed in the footsteps of Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross with his soulful material.
Finally, it was time for "Mr. Sensitivity" to make his move.
Ralph officially established himself as the “Michael Jackson” or “Marvin Gaye” of New Edition with this album. He was the quiet, sweet one. The one with the soft tenor & falsetto voice that stole the ladies' hearts.
Unlike the other N.E. Members, Ralph didn't try many new things on his solo effort. Instead, he maintained the New Edition sound, just with more of an emphasis on romance and ballads. Ralph kept the N.E. spirit alive, even continuing to dress like a New Edition member, while his bandmates grew into other personas.
Well, now was the time. This was an album fans had been waiting to hear since the 1980s. How does the music hold up today?
TRACK BY TRACK
Ralph begins the album by taking an aggressive page out of BBD's hip hop playbook. The song Rated R sounds nothing like what you'd expect from Ralph. Instead of being greeted by Ralph's signature breathy vocals, he comes right out the gate rapping. He isn't bad. It's just....unexpected. And forced. There were no hints of this sound on any of the New Edition material.
Rated R is basically a preview of what his follow-up album would sound like. The song isn't bad, but BBD did this kind of music better, and it just didn't sound like a natural fit for Ralph.
Ralph finds his groove with Sensitivity, the album's biggest hit. If you like Sensitivity, then you'll like the rest of the album. It's this song that sets the tone for the songs that follow.
The dreamy song, which is a brilliant mix of ballad and dance music, was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. In my opinion, the song almost sounds like a lost Janet Jackson track, as Jam and Lewis established this kind of sound with Janet. This, coupled with Ralph's whispery Jackson-esque vocals, gives the song a "Miss Jackson" feel.
Having said that, Ralph doesn't try to impress with his vocals – it's all about riding the lush grooves of the track. The song accomplishes what it sets out to do.
She's My Love Thang maintains the momentum of Sensitivity but speeds things up a bit. Like the previous track, She's My Love Thang is an uptempo ballad with a dance beat. Ralph brought his A-game when he performed this track on Soul Train back in the day.
Do What I Gotta Do is our first real ballad. It's not a bad song, and as far as instrumentation goes, Jam and Lewis were arguably at their best. But given Ralph's smooth and inoffensive falsetto, the song comes across almost bubblegum. If Johnny Gill had sang this song with him, it would have lit fire to the track and almost been something of a sequel to Can You Stand The Rain.
A more mature voice like Johnny's would have made this song sound more adult.
You can tell Ralph is trying to emulate his heroes Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye, but they would have brought the track to life. Ralph tries, but doesn't have the strength in his voice to do so. This song would have worked better as a New Edition song.
NOTE: I realize that Ralph's breathy voice is not technically a falsetto, but he sings in that range so much that you might as well call it that.
Love Hurts was co-written by Babyface with Daryl Simmons and Kayo, but he let his partners produce this one on their own. It's a good song, but it would have been much better if Babyface had been behind the boards himself. Again, Ralph croons sweetly to the material given to him.
Girl I Can't Control It sounds like an early Jodeci song. There's a reason for that – Ralph wrote the song with the raspy-voiced K-Ci Hailey, one of Jodeci's lead singers. Ralph could never growl like K-Ci, but he sings with more authority and confidence on this one. There's no doubt that K-Ci directed Ralph on how to sing these lines.
Public Figure – This is basically a melodic hip hop track. Like the previous songs, it's OK to listen to. But Ralph's material was better on the front-end of the album. Ralph, like Johnny, sometimes sounds out of his element on the uptempo stuff.
Last Night.-- Finally, another ballad! The opening to this one will grab you immediately. It's comprised of synthesized strings and bass, a drum programmed beat, and electric guitar. Ralph's vocals fit this song to a tee. This one was written and produced by Timmy Gatling and Alton "Wokie" Stewart. They did a good job of impersonating Jam and Lewis.
I Love You (Just For You) – This is the highlight of the album for me. Ralph will never be Michael Jackson. But on this one, it's almost as if Michael sang it through Ralph's voice. There's a real confidence to his vocal on this one. He never sounded this self-assured with New Edition. He's not simply riding the lyrics like he does on most songs here; you can feel what Ralph is singing. And what's cool about it is that he doesn't shout or do anything out of his comfort zone. He proves you can have a small voice and still be soulful. The confidence and grace of this track will prompt you to listen more than once, and it's too bad it wasn't released as a single. I think this one would have done better than Do What I Gotta Do.
“He (Michael) was on a different path at that time. He heard me playing the music and decided to write something for it. He was okay with Ralph doing it. I would have enjoyed him doing it.” -John Barnes
Ralph also said on Twitter that Michael left some of his background vocals on the track. I posted a screenshot of this above. But man, I love the electric bass on this track and the layered background vocals.
NOTE: Given the great material here, you can't help but wonder why Ralph didn't blow up as a solo star. Instead, Bobby Brown became the "breakout" member of New Edition, although each member had moderate success outside the group. Ralph's music was never bad. My only guess is that he lacked the natural charisma of other lead singers who transitioned into great solo careers like Sisqo, Justin Timberlake, Omarion, etc. What do you think? Leave a comment below.
So that's the album. It's the least confident of the other New Edition solo albums from that time period, but Ralph stuck to the sound he was familiar with and good at. You can tell he was cautious with this project. He wanted to take his time and give it his best shot. A listen to the grooves here show that his efforts paid off.
I'll leave you with an unreleased Ralph Tresvant song recorded around this time. It's a real banger and worthy of being a moderate hit, but doesn't quite fit with flow of the other tracks on the album.