NEW YORK — Bobby Brown is sweating like Patrick Ewing at the foul line — but he's smiling, and more importantly, he's singing again. He's been gone for too long.
"The rehearsal is really tough," Bob says while sitting in a control room in the back of Smash Studios, where he's taking a cigarette break from practicing with his band and backup singers. "It's hard for me to hold back. I try to keep the same energy I do onstage [during a live show], so that it's for real. Give me a mic and band, man, ain't no telling how long I'll perform. Ill keep going for years. I love it."
In his prime, Bob claimed to be the King of Stage (the title of his 1987 solo debut) and made it difficult for anyone to dispute him. His approach to performing was untamed, unpredictable and unvarnished: He'd go to any length to entertain, even if meant getting arrested for lewd conduct (as he was in Atlanta in 1993).
Unfortunately, Brown has made more headlines in the past decade for his numerous run-ins with police and his very public relationship with wife Whitney Houston than he has for making music. He hasn't put out an album since 1997's Forever, which came on the heels of the troubled 1996 New Edition Home Again reunion tour (see "New Edition Reunion 'Hell' ") and was basically ignored by fans and panned by critics.
"I took time off to raise my kids, make sure they are well grounded," Brown says of his extended break from recording. "My kids are teenagers now, so it's time for daddy to go back to work and let mommy sit back at home. She was working while I was at home raising the kids; now she's at home while I'm working. I'm trying to stay positive, stay focused and grounded. It's a whole new world out there: A lot of people haven't seen Bobby Brown perform."
Lately though, Brown has been hitting the stage here and there over the last few months: He may not be breaking out all of his old dance moves, but he's as magnetic as ever. In October, he helped New Edition steal the show at the BET 25th Anniversary special, and earlier this month he tore the roof off the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a guest performance that found him joining his former New Edition bandmates in Bell Biv DeVoe (see "New Edition Reuniting Again — And This Time, Bobby's On Board").
Although the bandmembers announced onstage that night that they'd be reforming for a tour in 2008, Brown now says the group will begin an eight-week trek in March — and he'll be taking a solo show on the road later this year and possibly bring along Guy and SWV (he says he's been talking to both acts).
"Ah man, I can't explain what performing is for me," he says. "It's what I do, man. I love to see people smile and have a good time."
In fact, Brown even refers to the New Edition jaunt as a continuation of the ill-fated 1996 Home Again tour. Brown's squabbling with the group on that trek was well documented in VH1's "Behind the Music" special on the group last year, which leads one to wonder why Brown thinks it would work this time.
"Just growing up and knowing you have friends somewhere in the world and you're not around them," he explains, noting that he was displeased with the way the "Behind the Music" was put together but harbors no animosity toward the group members. "I guess that's what I realized — they are my friends. I love 'em all, I love them dearly. We all we got! We're grown men now — we're looking forward to getting back on tour together and hanging out. It's gonna be fun."
During Brown's break from music, there have been plenty of R&B singers vying to win the hearts of fans. Brown says some of the younger guys remind him of himself.
"I've seen a lot of myself [recently], especially with Usher," he notes. "He basically did my whole show — he does my whole show as if it was me [onstage]. I guess that's what kept my name out there. Him and Omarion are the two artists I can say have a lot of my flavor.
"I call them little mini-me's!" he continues. "But I have my little son now. Both my sons, they're working on their stage presence — so Omarion and Usher, watch out, because my sons are coming."
Even if Brown sounds a little haughty when talking about the new breed of R&B, he does clarify by saying, "I love it — it's a compliment to me as a performer, and I thank y'all for that."
Brown says his new album is coming along superbly, noting that he's worked with several new producers thus far and hopes he can get back in the lab with Teddy Riley — who produced many of his classic records like "My Prerogative" — and estranged collaborators like L.A. Reid and Babyface.
"Hopefully me and L.A. and 'Face can make amends and we can get some business done," he smiles. "I'm here, guys."
Brown doesn't yet have a label (he says he's letting his hair grow until he releases a single, thus his wooly afro), but claims companies are currently bidding for his services.
"I don't ever want to be in a relationship with a company just for money, but that's what it's about right now," he says. "I got kids I support, so the money is gonna be important. Whoever comes with the fattest check, that's who's gonna get me."
He's also looking forward to doing a second season of his reality sitcom, "Being Bobby Brown," although it has not yet been confirmed that there will actually be a second season.
"I'm looking forward to doing that show again, because it was therapy," Brown says. "Things I was doing wrong with my life, 'Being Bobby Brown' made better."
Of course, the show is as much about being Whitney Houston as it is her husband. Brown denies the recent spate of rumors that he and his spouse of 14 years are getting divorced — to hear him speak about her, it sounds like they're going stronger than ever.
"It's like marriage counseling for me and my wife," he said. "When we look at it, we get to see exactly what our good points and bad points are.
"She's my best friend, that's my buddy," he affectionately adds about Whitney, who he says was reluctant to be on camera at first. "I think it's just our relationship with God that we have that make us the power couple we are. Our love was Godly. We have the same birthmarks in two places, so we were meant to be together."
But back at Smash Studios, Brown is eager to get back to another love: the stage. He goes through "Every Little Step" and "Get Away," and during a stripped-down version of "Roni" that he sings while sitting in a chair, he yells out, "Hey! I need my own 'Unplugged'!"
He starts singing again, but quickly bounds out of his seat and does two pelvic thrusts in time with the drums and piano.
Bobby Brown is back, all right.