The last time El DeBarge released an album, it was 1994. The Internet was starting to come into its own. Nielsen SoundScan was just 3 years old. YouTube, iTunes, Facebook and Twitter weren't even blips on anyone's radar. Not to mention that R&B and its fan base have changed radically since then.
None of that is fazing DeBarge, who's busy reintroducing himself to R&B radio and TV gatekeepers in support of his first album in 16 years, "Second Chance" (Geffen, late November). "You name it, I'm going there," says the singer/songwriter, whose current itinerary includes stops in New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. "I've got a lot of catching up to do."
DeBarge's first major reintroduction was a surprise performance in June at the BET Awards. It was his first public appearance after a series of legal run-ins, including a two-year term in California state prison following a 2008 bust for drug possession. An enthusiastic audience at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium sang along with him on a medley of '80s hits, including "All This Love" and pop crossover dance jam "Rhythm of the Night," by former family group DeBarge, which he fronted as the lead singer. He later returned to the stage to perform his new album's title track, the video for which premiered last week on AOL. The track entered the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart at No. 84 this week.
Following his well-received performances, DeBarge became a top Google trend the night of the show. The next morning, his return to the stage prompted a wave of positive reaction ranging from MTV ("2010 could end up being the year of El DeBarge") to Reuters ("El DeBarge wowed the audience").
But can Google and critical acclaim help DeBarge re-engage with today's R&B fan base? Music Choice executive Lamonda Williams says DeBarge has as fair a shot as anyone.
"I think about Chaka Khan, Sade, Lionel Richie, Maxwell -- people who span decades and can still step out into the arena and compete in the contemporary market," says Williams, who is director of programming for video on demand. "And El is no different. He did an amazing job on the BET Awards: He sounded just like he did earlier in his career and showed new-schoolers what pure R&B is all about."
DeBarge enlisted both new- and old-schoolers to co-write and co-produce "Second Chance." The former contingent includes producers Michael Angelo and Mischke; the latter boasts such names as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Geffen chief Ron Fair, who executive-produced the project. In addition to the lead single, on which DeBarge unleashes his still formidable three-octave range, the album features the club track "Switch Up the Formats" with 50 Cent, the sexy ballad "Lay With You" with Faith Evans and the uptempo "Five Seconds" with rapper Fabolous.
"I wasn't tripping about whether the songs were fast or slow," says DeBarge, whose back catalog has been covered or sampled by such artists as the Notorious B.I.G., Mariah Carey and Patti LaBelle. "I just wanted them to feel good. When something comes from the heart, then it will reach fans' hearts."
And that will be the reason why DeBarge's new project will work, BET Networks president of music and specials Stephen Hill says. "El understands what his strengths are. He's not trying to be 21 and still knows his way around strong lyrics," Hill says of the 49-year-old artist. "He's allowing himself and his music to be grown. Everybody deserves a second chance, and this is his."
"He's not hiding behind any kind of marketing ploy," adds Williams, who met with DeBarge during his New York promotion run. "He has the sheen and energy of a new artist but is also humbled by his past experiences, as he shows in the inspirational first single."
DeBarge, who logged several hits on his own in the '80s and '90s ("Who's Johnny," "Love Always") and as a guest artist (Fourplay's "After the Dance," Quincy Jones' "The Secret Garden"), recently appeared on BET's "106 & Park" and Steve Harvey's syndicated morning show. Noting that he's grateful for a second chance, the singer says he's not worried about making up for lost time.
"I'm too glad to be sad," DeBarge says. "I feel like I have something to offer the world, which is easier to get to now through Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the Internet.
"You can't miss me," he adds with a laugh. "I'm back in the house, baby."