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POP: Boyz II Men: No Grunge, No Gangstas

5 minute read
Christopher John Farley

In the 1990s, music isn’t the food of love — it’s too often the food of lust, angst, violence, misogyny and general nihilism. Grunge rockers are raging, gangsta rappers are boasting. The last thing anyone with talent seems interested in performing are songs about men and women who are crazy about each other. Love songs are for insipid, unit-moving “entertainers” like Michael Bolton — and that’s as good as saying the love song is dead.

Fortunately, the situation is not quite so dire. The vocal quartet Boyz II Men is living, singing proof that the love song — like love itself — will never really disappear. Other performers may grab the headlines and spark debates on the op-ed pages, but by going against the critical tide and recording harmonious ballads, Boyz II Men has won an enormous following. Its 1991 debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, sold 7 million copies, and in 1992 its mournful, melodic single End of the Road stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts for 13 weeks, breaking a record set by Elvis Presley. The group’s new song, I’ll Make Love II You, has become the fastest-selling single of 1994 so far. Their second major album, titled II, comes out this week and has already generated huge orders.

What’s remarkable about Boyz II Men is that its unabashed romanticism never bogs down the members’ considerable musical skill. Motown is their label, and with their harmonies and look-alike outfits, they hark back to the classic Motown vocal groups like the Temptations. The Boyz released their debut CD just after the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal. It was a cynical time for pop music. Vanilla Ice had a best-selling pseudo-rap album; New Kids on the Block had gone multiplatinum. Were there any real singers left? Was everyone as fake as Rob and Fab’s hair extensions? The answer to these questions was Boyz II Men. Cooleyhighharmony was quality, old-school music, and its success paved the way for a new generation of singing groups, including Shai, SWV and All-4-One.

II is so shamelessly traditional it’s almost radical. While elsewhere in pop, bands like Nine Inch Nails scream such lyrics as “I want to f — — — you like an animal,” the Boyz uphold a quaint gentlemanliness. Women aren’t objects of lust; they are cherished. “Girl, your wish is my command/ I’ll submit to your demands,” go the lyrics to I’ll Make Love II You. Monogamy is celebrated. “Wanna build a new life,” goes On Bended Knee. “Gonna make you my wife/ Raise a family.” Boyz II Men has found a niche by seeming to be blissfully unaware of its cultural surroundings. “America right now is being bombarded with reality, whether it’s talk shows or rap or trials on TV or C-SPAN,” says Jheryl Busby, president of Motown. “This is a group that once again is introducing us to fantasy. Love affairs. Romance.”

The Boyz — Wanya Morris, Nate Morris (no relation), Shawn Stockman and Michael McCary — didn’t live in a fantasy world growing up. All are in their early 20s, and all were raised by single mothers of modest means. That helps explain why their music is so empathetic toward the opposite sex. “Women go through a great deal in the day,” says Stockman, “and we feel the man should be the one to say, ‘Hey, relax, now I’m going to do the things you want to be done.”‘

The new album was shaped by top-flight producers, including Babyface (who’s worked with Toni Braxton and Madonna) and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the masterminds of Janet Jackson’s rise to megastardom). Every song on II is about love and is performed at mid-tempo; the whole enterprise could easily have become just another bland-as-the-Weather-Channel collection of precision- crafted pop songs. It didn’t. Each of the Boyz has a robust, nimble voice — “There’s not a weak link in the bunch,” says Jam — and the group turns almost every song on II into a vocal workout. Water Runs Dry, with its plaintive singing backed by a spare acoustic guitar, creates a mood of sublime melancholy. An a cappella cover of the Beatles’ Yesterday is movingly inflected with gospel-inspired harmonies.

Much is at stake with the release of II. There is the sophomore slump to worry about. Then there is the money. The quartet has a seven-record deal with Motown that could pay them between $20 million and $30 million, depending on the number of copies sold, according to a record-industry executive familiar with the deal. “I can’t tell you how nervous I am about the record,” says Stockman. “I’m praying this record does well.” His prayers will probably be answered. II is an album of fulfilled promise, and one that sends a message to the rest of the record industry that nice guys can finish first.

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