Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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DeBarge [extended]

  • The DeBarges [Gordy, 1981] A-
  • All This Love [Gordy, 1982] B+
  • In a Special Way [Gordy, 1983] A+
  • Rhythm of the Night [Gordy, 1985] B+
  • El DeBarge [Gordy, 1986] B
  • Gemini [Motown, 1989] B+
  • Heart, Mind and Soul [Reprise, 1994] A-
  • Long Time No See [Kedar/Universal, 1997] **
  • The Game [Motown, 1999] Choice Cuts
  • Second Chance [Geffen, 2010] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The DeBarges: The DeBarges [Gordy, 1981]
Four harmonizing siblings, and if you think Berry's been here before, you're a lot less than 80 percent right. For one thing Berry's not calling the shots--they produce, they write, they even play (supposedly). Not too long on substance in those departments, I admit, but young adults who sing with the grace of children don't just get away with flight fantastic--when they fly as high and free as Bunny (who's a girl) and Eldra (who isn't), it's their destiny. A-

All This Love [Gordy, 1982]
They came from nowhere with an airy debut that never touched ground or stopped coming, and nowhere is where it went. So this time they go against their own best instincts, bearing down on individual compositions rather than immersing themselves in sound. When they hit one--slow stuff like "All This Love" and "I Like It" is why the Lord blessed them--you can hear it breaking through and crossing over, always the Motown ideal. When they don't, all you hear is exquisitely cautious product. B+

In a Special Way [Gordy, 1983]
When first I fell in love with the austere lilt and falsetto fantasy they've pinned to plastic here, I thought it was just that I'd finally outgrown the high-energy fixation that's always blocked my emotional access to falsetto ballads. So I went back to Spinners and Blue Magic, Philip Bailey and my man Russell Thompkins Jr., and indeed, they all struck a little deeper--but only, I soon realized, because the superior skill of these kids had opened me up. I know of no pop music more shameless in its pursuit of pure beauty--not emotional (much less intellectual) expression, just voices joining for their own sweet sake, with the subtle Latinized rhythms (like the close harmonies themselves) working to soften odd melodic shapes and strengthen the music's weave. High energy doesn't always manifest itself as speed and volume--sometimes it gets winnowed down to its essence. A+

Rhythm of the Night [Gordy, 1985]
Eldra DeBarge's genius isn't especially with-it--uptempo arrangements do nothing for his outstretched melodies and chilly harmonies. But he and his countless siblings scored one hit after another off In a Special Way, which led to a traumatic tour with the unsinkable Luther Vandross when Eldra might have been working up new product. Hence this mishmash--a Richard Perry-produced soundtrack one-off, a Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack one-off, a 1981 ballad featuring Eldra and sister Bunny in their classic falsetto mode, four standard medium-fasts from C-list funk-popper Jay Graydon, and two uptempo numbers from Eldra, who seems to be getting a handle on the stuff. Pray the paranoia underlying his all-too-interesting "The Walls (Come Tumbling Down)" dissipates when he settles into the studio again. B+

El DeBarge: 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

El DeBarge: 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+

El DeBarge: 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-

Chico DeBarge: Long Time No See [Kedar/Universal, 1997]
Marvin Gaye gets out of jail ("Love Still Good," "Love Jones") **

Chico DeBarge: The Game [Motown, 1999]
"The Game" Choice Cuts

El DeBarge: 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-