Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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El DeBarge

  • El DeBarge [Gordy, 1986] B
  • Gemini [Motown, 1989] B+
  • Heart, Mind and Soul [Reprise, 1994] A-
  • Second Chance [Geffen, 2010] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

El DeBarge [Gordy, 1986]
Especially since Eldra, to honor the name his mama gave him, has shown something like genius as both writer and producer, the plethora of outside help is a double down. But though you can be sure this projected crossover is expected to produce a run of peppy crossover singles, starting with El's second straight meaningless movie theme, it has the flow of an album, even the personal stamp. This is provided not by what they're selling, the boyish clarity and indomitable sweetness of a voice a just God would have bestowed on a braver guy, but by the outside help, most of it sufficiently skillful and second-rate to mimic his rhythmic and melodic quirks. With lyrics adding hints of maturity to his customary show of naiveté and hooky beats fattened with the plush keybs of big-league pop, he almost passes as one more ingratiating opportunist. B

Gemini [Motown, 1989]
With his solo debut an old stiff, several lesser siblings convicted cocaine traffickers, and Uncle Berry passed on to his corporate reward, this is black pop on a beeline for the cutout bins, which I guess means it isn't really black pop at all. Just good black music, ancient to the future, all jumping rhythms and space-case melody, less catchy song than gorgeous sound. Can't say maturity's done him a damn bit of good. But at least it hasn't killed him. B+

Heart, Mind and Soul [Reprise, 1994]
The great lost love man enlists Babyface (five songs, four jumpy), Jermaine Dupri (one trick groove), various siblings (backing up his ballads), and the shade of Marvin Gaye (self-penned title finale) in an overdue quest for his own genius. The incomparable In a Special Way was 1983, and those hung up on the irretrievable innocence and naturalness of the past may take offense at the digital aesthetic, not to mention El's occasional descent into a manly tenor. Me, I applaud his appetite for the freaky, and note fondly that he adores her for it in the morning, as dogged as ever in his helpless devotion. I urge him to find more harmony work for Bunny and the others. But this is his second-best album. A-

Second Chance [Geffen, 2010]
This minor genius peaked pre-1985 as the reason for being of the family harmony group DeBarge, which also gave the world ex-con lite Chico DeBarge and Janet Jackson annulment survivor James DeBarge. Although he hung on solo for a while, in this century his chief creative outlet has been the police blotter. But a minor genius he remains, and here he conquers the demon cocaine with a little help from the opiate of the people and records his first solo album since 1994 with a little help from the keeper of Geffen Records' flickering flame. It may bore or offend Babyface diehards. But those with a tolerance for prefab promises and schlock choruses won't care that the songs are the same old hyperromantic BS as long as his tenor remains intact. And though he turns 50 in 2011, it's unspoiled. DeBarge's special gift has always been combining the boyish innocence of J5-era Michael Jackson with intimations of physical congress. The quirky murmurs, yelps, and coos of his head voice, a high end of unequalled softness and give, sound responsive where Jackson's sound willed. There's a girl there, or just as likely a grown woman. And whether or not El seems manly to you, he's turning her on and vice versa. A-