What Does Your Soul Look Like

Chico DeBarge and the search for a new Marvin Gaye

In the world of pop music, reincarnation is an everyday thing. We're always either hoping that our favorite dead artists have been credibly reborn in the bodies of fresh new stars, or delighted when worn-out hacks get revived as of-the-moment artistes. The recent rise of Chico DeBarge is a potential double dip. The inch-thick stack of press clips about his lovely new Long Time No See poses him as both a strife-ridden comeback kid and, like crooners Maxwell and D'Angelo before him, the latest living embodiment of Marvin Gaye. Neither take is quite accurate.

Despite a very brief solo career and a semihit in 1986, DeBarge was never really here in the first place. His poodle-haired older brother El was the talent in DeBarge, the mid-'80s fluffy-soul group that grooved to the "Rhythm of the Night." Brother James married Janet Jackson; the short union was annulled. Slipstreaming on his brothers' fame, Chico tried to start a solo career, but he was convicted of drug conspiracy and sent to prison.

Peppered with songs written during his six-year prison term, Long Time No See chronicles DeBarge's re-entrance into the chilly air of everyday life. Prison itself is mentioned fleetingly. It's the skeleton on which DeBarge builds his traditional tales of a lover man trying to get along, either cradled by a faithful woman, or spat out by betrayal. Prison is always felt: The memories of privation spur DeBarge to divulge every inch of his inner world.

Long Time has been all but ignored by MTV and radio, but it's being kept alive by those loving press notices and word of mouth from DeBarge's ongoing tour. A large, enthused crowd made the scene at Bimbo's two weeks ago, where DeBarge played a meaty set. And critics from Billboard to Vibe have made enthusiastic endorsements of Long Time's smoothly operated tracks even as they expressed disbelief that they were actually enjoying an album by a DeBarge -- remember them?

The comparison to Marvin Gaye -- which DeBarge courts with Long Time's virtual note-for-note cover of Gaye's "Trouble Man" -- comes up again and again in DeBarge's press. It's a good story and writers fall like dominoes just as his marketing department must have hoped. Not that there aren't superficial similarities: The sonics of Long Time -- lightly humming organ and gently brushed drums while DeBarge half scats, half moans in a smoky falsetto -- make it obvious that Gaye is a huge star in DeBarge's universe. But it's the differences between the two that say the most -- about DeBarge and Gaye, current R&B, and where we're at as a culture at large.

DeBarge's references to prison and his musical homage to Gaye have led several critics to liken Long Time to Gaye's musical and sociological masterpiece, What's Going On. Where Gaye was just home from Vietnam on "What's Happening, Brother," DeBarge is just home from a turn in the criminal justice system on "Love Still Good." But where Gaye, like his peers Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron, was crafting explicitly political jazz-soul hybrids, DeBarge is by contrast a more personal and insular artist, inspired mainly by the inner dramas of his personal relationships. While DeBarge's liner notes reveal a potently conscious worldview -- "I labored in the factories of prison, slept in your cells, grew up in your ghettos, lost a loved one to your war on drugs, been a menace to your society," he writes, "still I pursue that which is good" -- Long Time speaks of little outside the realm of desire.

Even on "Trouble Man," where DeBarge sounds so much like Gaye, he's miles away from him emotionally. Where Gaye's original is resolutely dark, the singer borne down by the burden of being a "Trouble Man," DeBarge's version ends upbeat, almost bouncy. Whatever the trouble was originally, in DeBarge's version it doesn't seem to be as serious. All of which makes for perfectly good music, music that Gaye would likely be happy to hear. But it leaves out an essential aspect of his legacy, one that many artists who jones for his inheritance seem comfortable setting aside in favor of velvety-smooth, Marvin-perfect sounds.

You can see why people are looking for a new Gaye. In the midst of the current wave of mindlessly sappy (Brandy, Dru Hill) and/or ridiculously sexed-up (Ginuwine, Dru Hill) R&B, anything that actually refers to societal reality, however fleetingly, feels like political sophistication. DeBarge is an excellent candidate: He's an adult artist writing adult songs in a genre that has become almost the sole property of teen-agers for whom Ginuwine's pickup line -- "Do you wanna ride my pony?" -- provides emotional kick.

DeBarge may be as close to Marvin Gaye that the '90s are going to get. With the stock market booming, the economy exploding, and the job market growing fast enough to accommodate some of those on the welfare rolls (for a hot minute, at least), it follows that musicians would fall for the same take-care-of-my-own attitude infecting the country as a whole. When Marvin Gaye constructed What's Going On he was -- against the urgings of his family, record company, and the very nature of his music -- speaking to what he saw, reflecting the culture of questioning around him. But when, on "Love Still Good," Chico DeBarge turns his back on the prison that has released him and goes in search of home and the woman he left there years before, he's doing something else: mirroring the desire of the society at large, for its citizens to comfort themselves and each other with everything money can buy, questioning only when and where the next pop-music reincarnation will occur.

 
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