It’s been sixteen years since we’ve heard new music from Bell Biv DeVoe, so it makes sense for the r&b trio to reiterate their mission statement on the cover of the new Three Stripes: “Our music is mentally hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with a pop feel to it.” That’s the credo BBD have used since they spun off from New Edition in 1990 to release tougher, sexier songs, led by the spiteful (yet irresistible) “Poison” and the horned-up “Do Me!” Back then, the group’s slogan was as much boast as branding — “Poison” talked about sex in ways that were more direct and ugly than seductive — but what it means now is something different.
In 1990, the three genres Bell Biv DeVoe name-checked were mingling on radio playlists to varying degrees, depending on which market you checked. The year-end Billboard Hot 100 had “Poison” at No. 4 (followed by Madonna) and was led by Wilson Phillips, Roxette, and Sinéad O’Connor, while singles by hip-hop crossover stars Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer lingered in the 40s.
In 2017, hip-hop has become its own world, and the “pop feel” that was once so crucial to BBD’s success has shifted. The two hip-hop songs that went to No. 1 in recent months — Rae Sremmurd’s spaced-out “Black Beatles” and Migos’ minimalist “Bad and Boujee” — did so without the support of pop radio, which has dealt with Top 40 radio’s gradual whitening in a quixotic way that often involves rap being part of the mix, but shoved off to the side (e.g., Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Maroon 5’s limp-noodle “Don’t Wanna Know”). R&b, meanwhile, is full of vital albums but light on the pop appeal, with few artists who don’t have celebrity on their side (à la Rihanna and Drake) experiencing the sort of crossover that was the norm in 2001, when the trio’s last album, BBD, came out.
Initially, BBD’s 2017 pop quotient seems to be all-out retroism. “Run,” the Erick Sermon–produced first single, rides the groove of Herb Alpert’s 1979 disco hit “Rise,” the same beat that formed the backbone for the Notorious B.I.G.’s twenty-year-old smash “Hypnotize.” A sample of Soul Train conductor Don Cornelius introducing BBD leads into the lush “One More Try,” where the trio’s vocals are rounded out by the strong harmonies of Michael Bivins protégés Boyz II Men. “Finally,” a besotted collaboration with fellow New Jack Swing lifers SWV, is a backstage flirtation turned into a call-and-response duet, with a chorus that recalls the romantic peaks of Nineties r&b.
But Three Stripes ably shows off the trio’s modern-day charm. “I’m Betta,” a valentine to a woman who’s taken by another man, percolates in a way that splits the difference between DJ Mustard’s slithering beats and the uptempo Nineties Eurodance songs Mustard uses as source material, with Ricky Bell’s lovelorn vocal serving as an excellent fulcrum to his bandmates’ boasts. “Find a Way” struts confidently, its promises of bedroom prowess given extra conviction by a sinewy pulse. “Hot Damn” sounds like a Jam & Lewis–helmed update of “One Dance,” turning that song’s jittery beat up all the way. “All Dat There” is the most contemporary-sounding offering, a chronicle of being brought to the edge of glory over a slow-moving minimalist backing track.
Three Stripes came out at the end of January, a couple of months after the trio performed at the Obama White House and the day after the wrap-up of The New Edition Story, a three-night B.E.T. miniseries that lightly fictionalized the story of Bell Biv DeVoe’s parent group. The detail-rich filmed version of New Edition’s backstory is a fun ride, with re-creations of photo shoots and videos as well as re-recordings of various songs from the group and its offshoots by its cast; it wound up being a ratings hit for B.E.T. (Its fleshing-out of the members’ personalities includes a focus on the business acumen of Bivins, played by Empire star Bryshere Yazuan Gray; the release of Three Stripes off the back of the miniseries furthers that case.) The conditions that allowed “Poison” to become a bring-down-the-house staple don’t exist today, and the alchemy of Bell Biv DeVoe’s sound has changed as a result. But that helps make Three Stripes something more than a nostalgia exercise. Think of it as a lesson: how bad boys can grow into smoothed-out men.