Ralph Tresvant: Why Wasn’t New Edition’s Frontman a Bigger Star?
BET's The New Edition Story mini-series has been a ratings bonanza for the network. The three-part television event has dominated social sites over it's first two nights (Jan. 24 and 25), as old fans and newcomers get to see how the dramatic story of New Edition played out throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
But one question that has consistently surfaced across social media is in regards to N.E.'s longtime lead singer, Ralph Tresvant. More than any other member, Tresvant is the voice of New Edition. Bobby Brown had his signature moments on the group's early albums, and Johnny Gill became an anchor during the group's latter years, but Ralph is the constant. It was the young Ralph who drew Michael Jackson comparisons with his high tenor, giving his youthful gusto to bubblegum anthems like "Cool It Now" and "Lost In Love," and it was Ralph balancing with Johnny that came to define New Edition's more "adult" years. But in the 1990s, as N.E. splintered into individual acts, Ralph Tresvant's success paled in comparison to Brown's, Gill's and Bell Biv DeVoe's.
But why? Why wasn't Ralph Tresvant bigger as a solo artist?
One common bit of contemporary R&B revisionism is the suggestion that Ralph Tresvant wasn't successful at all or was merely a one-hit wonder. Tresvant's self-titled 1990 debut was a platinum-selling album, and while it can't be denied that his first single "Sensitivity" was his hugest hit (it reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100), it wasn't his only hit. The album's second single "Stone Cold Gentleman" reached No. 2 on Billboard's R&B charts and No. 34 on the Hot 100; and the third single "Do What I Gotta Do" also reached No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1991, as did Tresvant's 1992 single "Money Can't Buy You Love," from the Damon Wayans action-comedy Mo' Money's soundtrack.
But what hurt Tresvant, at least relatively, was that his bandmates all managed to release smash albums before Ralph Tresvant ever hit stores (Gill and BBD's hit albums were out in spring 1990, Tresvant's wasn't released until that November), and the others managed to carve specific niches for themselves that set them apart from contemporaries--New Edition or otherwise. Of course, Bobby Brown had become a superstar back in 1988--his commercial success eclipsed the rest of New Edition, but Johnny Gill was able to score a platinum album and two singles in the Billboard Top Ten in the spring/summer of 1990. Gill also established himself as a quiet storm mainstay. BBD fared similarly--scoring two Top Ten hits--and, with their hip-hop-centric image, they were able to make a major impact on pop culture; everything from slang to clothing fads were inspired by BBD. Ralph was harder to define. "He does both ballads and street-sounding funk and hip-hop," his manager Larkin Arnold explained to the LA Times in 1990. "People who like New Edition are more likely to like Ralph's album."
But because of that middling approach; Tresvant didn't have BBD's cultural impact, Brown's megastardom or Gill's specified longevity. So, in 2017, it's easy to overlook the fact that Ralph Tresvant happened.
It's a bitter fact of his career that things could've been very different for Ralph. In 1987, with New Edition in a state of flux, Tresvant was plotting a solo turn. But pressures from the rest of New Edition and from their label, MCA, led to Tresvant shelving his solo project to work on N.E.'s Heart Break album. Bobby released his Don't Be Cruel album the same day that New Edition would release Heart Break; and Don't Be Cruel would be a monster hit. The title track was the lead single and would eventually hit the Top Ten, and by the end of 1988, Brown would have two more Top Ten singles, including "My Prerogative," which hit No. 1. In the spring of 1989, he'd have two more with "Every Little Step" and "Rock Witcha;" and that summer, he scored another No. 1 with "On Our Own," the theme song from Ghostbusters II. As Ralph put his solo career on hold, he got to watch as Bobby became one of the biggest stars in music.
That's not to suggest Heart Break was some sort of consolation prize; it was a multiplatinum album that scored a Top Ten hit with "If It Isn't Love," and "Can You Stand the Rain" was a sizable chart hit. But it meant that Brown had effectively done what most of the world expected Ralph to do: become the breakout solo superstar from New Edition. Add to that the releases from Gill and BBD, and Tresvant's thunder was stolen by virtually everyone in his group.
Another factor that made Tresvant's peak relatively short was the demise of the "buttoned-down" R&B singer. As a solo artist, Tresvant's image was heavily tied to a "gentlemanly" persona; song titles like "Sensitivity" and "Stone Cold Gentleman" evoked a "nice guy" who hated to break your heart on "Do What I Gotta Do." Similarly to other early 90s R&B acts like Boyz II Men and After 7, as well as more teen-friendly artists such as Hi-Five and Tevin Campbell; Tresvant's appeal was rooted in good ol' fashioned romance. But Bell Biv DeVoe had made hip-hop edge a premium in R&B; and their "smack it up, flip it" mantra swiftly took hold in artists like Jodeci and R. Kelly. By the time Ralph Tresvant released his second album, It's Goin' Down, in late 1993, the landscape had drastically shifted from dapper, suit-wearing gentlemen to shirtless, sagging bad boys. The same shift led to the decline of the aforementioned groups--even though Boyz II Men's biggest-selling album was 1994s II, they weren't able to replicate that success because the shift that was then just beginning to take hold would become firmly entrenched by 1995 and 1996. Add to that the decline of New Jack Swing (which, to be fair, led to Bobby, BBD and Johnny suffering dropoffs in popularity circa 1993/94, as well) and you have a relatively short run for Ralph Tresvant.
So Ralph Tresvant's career feels like one of missed opportunity--but not wasted talent. We'll never know if he would've been bigger had the timing been better. We'll never know if it was just destined for Bobby Brown to become what Bobby Brown became. But we do know that Ralph's run deserves more credit than it often gets from contemporary fans and critics. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were the chief writers/producers for much of Tresvant's early 90s work, and it's some of their best stuff; even lesser-known singles from It's Goin' Down have aged remarkably well ("When I Need Somebody" is a delight and should've been a much bigger song back in 1994.) And while his run wasn't earth-shattering, it was worth remembering.
The fact that so many don't says more about us than it does Ralph.
Check out these Ralph Tresvant videos: