by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
The follow-up disc, 1983’s In a Special Way, is the group’s masterpiece and ranks among the very best full-lengths to ever come out of the Motown machine (critic Robert Christgau has gone so far as to hail it as one of the ten best albums of the 1980s), though it’s not nearly as well-known as such other Motown landmarks as Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. (It’s similar in this regard to the equally-romantic A Quiet Storm by Smokey Robinson, an album that only attracts modest attention at best from critics and record-buyers alike yet was every bit as wildly influential as Let’s Get It On and even inspired the name of an entire new radio format, one that DeBarge themselves would become a regular fixture of at their peak.)
Yet while most critics overlook In a Special Way, producers certainly haven’t – this is easily one of the most heavily-sampled R&B albums of the ‘80s and for good reason. Simply put, the rhythm arrangements of these songs are shining examples of adult-contemporary R&B at its very best, and the disc is overflowing with all kinds of intoxicating instrumental hooks – all the more impressive when you consider that the disc actually has a considerably more sparse sound than All This Love. [This may have been accidental, though; allegedly, horn overdubs were recorded for the disc but subsequently misplaced.] A perfect example of this is the electric piano lick that permeates loop-like through much of “Stay with Me” – if you recognize those notes, you should: they serve as the central musical figure in both Ashanti’s solo debut “Foolish” (which topped both the pop and R&B charts for ten weeks) and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance.” [The song – penned by El and Bunny with Mark – has also been sampled in Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” and Ne-Yo’s “Stay” from his debut album In My Own Words.]
“Stay with Me” isn’t the only cut here to crop up in sample form in more than one major pop hit, either; the Bunny-written-and-sung album-closing ballad “A Dream” figures heavily into the musical beds of “Don’t Leave Me” – Blackstreet’s fabulous and sadly-often-overlooked follow-up single to “No Diggity” – and 2Pac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha.” [Mary J. Blige would cover the song in full for the soundtrack to Money Talks.]
Track for track, In a Special Way is easily more consistent from start to finish than its predecessor and also strikes a better balance in quality between the up-tempo cuts and ballads. James plays a heavy role in the former, providing the disc with most of its dance numbers. Like All This Love, the album begins with a James-led cut – in this case “Be My Lady” – but there’s a noticeable improvement in both James’ writing chops and his vocal performances, and his delivery on the deeply soulful cut finds him singing with a whole new level of confidence, while his vocal turn on his own “Need Somebody” is surprisingly gritty and contrasts nicely to El’s more mellow-styled backing vocals. James even teams up with the legendary “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston (“Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing from Nothing”) to write the dance-oriented “I Give Up on You.” [El, the fine balladeer though he is, turns in an appealing dance cut of his own, though, with “Baby, Won’t Cha Come Quick.”]
As expected, though, El steals the show when the group shifts into ballad mode, and there are two bona fide R&B classics here. The ponderous mellow vibes of “Time Will Reveal” (penned by El with Bunny and Bobby) would climb to #18 pop and top the R&B survey. First-rate though the lyrics are, the most impressive feature of the song is its winning melody, which incorporates some unexpected chord changes and interesting twists without ever ceasing to be catchy, a very tricky balancing act to master. The song has gone on in subsequent years to be covered by everyone from Boyz II Men (on their overlooked all-cover disc Throwback) to smooth-jazz saxophonist Kim Waters.
But arguably even better than “Time Will Reveal” is the captivating “Love Me in a Special Way,” which would miss both the Top 40 (peaking at #45) and the R&B Top Ten (stopping at #11) but deserved to fare much better, and the track remains the most underrated single in the band’s catalog. The gospel-influenced piano ballad (which would be covered in later years by Tamia) features El at his most passionate and emotionally powerful. Like “All This Love” before it, the track needs no star power to help carry it and packs plenty of punch even in the most minimalist of forms, but, just as Jose Feliciano would put the former song over the top with his acoustic-guitar work, the group outdoes itself and manages to come up with yet another perfect guest-cameo touch by bringing in the legendary Stevie Wonder to provide a harmonica solo.