We’ve seen how splitting from hit-making songwriters or producers in an ill-fated bid for creative control can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how record label politics can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how failed musical makeovers in the face of changing times can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how deteriorating personal relationships can fester and kill an artist’s or band’s careers.
What happens when all of those things happen at once? You get Boyz II Men.
Anyone who grew up in the 1990s can tell you just how big Boyz II Men were. They spent so many weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, you might as well have engraved their names at the top of the charts. In fact, when “On Bended Knee” replaced “I’ll Make Love To You” as the #1 song on December 3, 1994, it was only the third time in chart history an artist replaced itself at #1 — the two others that accomplished this happened to be The Beatles and Elvis Presley. The band has three of the four longest runs at #1 on the Billboard 100 and its 50 combined weeks at the top of the American singles chart have only been surpassed by Mariah Carey, Presley, Rhianna and The Beatles.
Arguably, they were an even bigger cultural phenomenon — at least for people who came of age in the 90s. The History of the Eagles documentary made the case that Henley, Frey & Co. became an indelible part of people’s lives simply due to their ubiquity. Essentially, people did things to Eagles songs, like dance, party, take road trips, deal with heartbreak, etc.
The same could be said for Boyz II Men. Ask most people who went to middle or high school in the 90s and they’ll probably say they had their first slow dance to a Boyz II Men song (mine was “End of the Road” with a girl I went to summer camp with). I saw a stand up clip on TV once where the comedian (I didn’t catch the name) said that he only knew how to talk to women because he listened to a lot of Boyz II Men when he was growing up. I wonder if that joke was inspired by the “I’ll Make Love To You” video where the guy writes a love letter by cribbing the song’s lyrics (although I never understood why he thought that would work – was the woman the one person in the world who had never heard the lyrics to a song that song that spent 14 weeks at #1?).
It’s easy to see how they got so big. They had great songs. They had a great origin story (they met as students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and got signed after they snuck backstage to audition for Michael Bivens of New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe). And they all seemed like nice guys. Their positivity, earnestness and sensitivity made them more appealing to a large cross-section of America than a band like Jodeci or Bell Biv Devoe, while their “adult-lite” lyrics and maturity gave them more of an edge than boybands like New Edition or New Kids On The Block.
Most importantly, they were fantastic singers whose voices were made for each other. The phrase “perfect harmony” gets thrown around a lot, but nowhere was it more apt than in describing Boyz II Men. Between Nathan Morris’s soulful baritone, Shawn Stockman’s sensual tenor, Wanya Morris’s evocative tenor and Michael McCary’s authoritative bass (which was also perfect for spoken word interludes, like in “End of the Road”), Boyz II Men could make anything sound beautiful. While plenty of bands tried to show off their vocal chops by singing a cappella, Boyz II Men could not only blow those groups away when they decided to break things down, they often sounded better than they did with music and instrumentation.
However, the band also had some pretty big weaknesses. For one, their sensitivity made them ideal targets for parody (witness this memorable Boyz II Wimps sketch from In Living Color which made fun of the above mentioned spoken word interlude from “End of the Road”).
A much bigger weakness was their reliance on outside songwriters. “I’ll Make Love To You,” “Water Runs Dry” and “Song for Mama” were written by Babyface. “End of the Road” was penned by Babyface, L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons. “On Bended Knee” and “Four Seasons of Loneliness” came from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” and “In The Still of the Night” were covers. Of their big hits, only “Motownphilly” and “One Sweet Day” contained writing credits from band members — and those songs also contained credits for outside songwriters.
Additionally, what had once made them widely appealing had become a liability as the 90s came to an end. The group had always straddled the line between boyband and R&B group, and whether it was more of one or the other is something that continues to be debated today. Being between those two extremes had been quite successful for them in the early-to-mid 90s. As the 2000s beckoned, however, Boyz II Men were starting to look out of place. R&B was getting more explicit while bubblegum groups like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and the group that had overtly copied their blueprint, 98 Degrees, were starting to become more popular. Throw in Latin singers like Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias, and there was, suddenly, a lot of competition for Boyz II Men. As a sign of the changing times, the group’s record sales had started to decline, as 1997’s Evolution “only” managed to go double platinum — a good figure, to be sure, but a huge dropoff from its predecessor, the diamond-selling II.
Amidst this backdrop, the group recorded 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya. That period was an especially difficult time for the band. Members weren’t getting along and the band had nearly broken up while recording Evolution. Making matters worse, McCary was suffering from scoliosis and could no longer take part in the band’s dance routines – something that had clearly taken a toll on the band’s live shows, according to 2000 story in Vibe.
Additionally, Boyz II Men had been at odds with Motown ever since the label released a remix album in 1995 over the band’s objection. By 2000, Universal had purchased Motown and Boyz II Men were assigned to the parent label.
Despite, or perhaps because of the corporate reshuffling and label instability, the band ended up with more say over the songwriting and creative process for Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya. And they seemed determined to prove they could come up with their own hits while seamlessly navigating changing music tastes. Band members wrote or co-wrote all but two of the 14 songs on the album, and five of those songs were credited solely to the four Boyz (or Men?). Stockman wrote two songs by himself, including lead single “Pass You By.” There is no Babyface or Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis presence on this record. Instead, the band worked with lesser known but still formidable producers such as Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs (who had produced TLC’s monster hit “No Scrubs” and several songs for Destiny’s Child) and Shep Crawford (98 Degrees, Sisqo, Deborah Cox, Montell Jordan and others).
But just because they have the control doesn’t mean they do a good job with it. In fact, the end result is a disjointed album that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths and, instead, sounds like a desperate attempt to capitalize on then-current musical trends. For instance, on many songs, the band’s distinctive vocals and harmonies get buried in the mix, making the album sound like a generic R&B/dance album.
On several songs, the band completely steps out of its comfort zone by experimenting with Latin beats and melodies. The results are mixed, to say the least. Opening track “Beautiful Women” sounds a lot like “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” the surprisingly superior 98 Degrees single that came out at around the same time. Perhaps the main reason why is that while Nick Lachey and Jeff Timmons were able to pull off their corny come-ons, Boyz II Men just sound awkward singing lyrics like: “East coast, west coast city to the meadow/ Burbs to the ghetto/ Beautiful women/ From Cairo, to Rio, to Montego.” It’s not even the best song with the word “Montego” (let alone “Rio”). Meanwhile, songs like “Good Guy,” “What the Deal” and “Dreams” have that Spanish-flavored acoustic riff that NSYNC and Justin Timberlake would go on to use, ad nauseam. These songs are serviceable — “Dreams,” in particular, is quite good and demonstrates the potential of the new, mature Boyz II Men.
Other songs on the album are less successful. “Bounce, Shake, Move, Swing” sounds like a bad dance remix — only in this case, it’s the actual song. Compounding things is an annoying video game-like beat, as well as verses that have a suspiciously similar rhythm and melody to “I’m Too Sexy.” It’s a fairly common melody but if this song had been released today, Boyz II Men probably would have had to do a Taylor Swift and toss Right Said Fred a co-writing credit just to be safe. “Never Go Away” has an R. Kelly-style beat, but with decidedly more PG lyrics (“Baby you’re so beautiful, honey you’re special too/ You make me wanna do things that I never thought I’d do/ Like put you up in my home and buy you fancy things/ We can make lots and lots of babies/ And I’ll buy you a big diamond ring…Oooh”). Then again, that’s staying very much on-brand for Boyz II Men.
Meanwhile, lead single “Pass You By” sounds like an attempt to recapture the Babyface formula. It’s a good enough song, but it lacks the killer hook and smooth melody that their former producer was known for. “Know What You Want,” which was written by Nathan Morris, sounds much more like a classic Babyface song with its swinging chorus and soaring vocals. It probably would have been a better choice as lead single, if that’s what they were going for. Second single “Thank You in Advance” is a solid track, as McCary gets a rare chance to shine. It sounds a bit like Brian McKnight and definitely shows where the band was trying to go as far as developing a more mature, adult-oriented sound. Album closer “Do You Remember,” which sounds a bit like Tony Rich, is also one of the standout songs on the record.
However, all of this “sounds like” stuff lampshades the biggest problem with this record: on the whole, it doesn’t sound like Boyz II Men. Obviously, bands have to reinvent themselves, and Boyz II Men were in a precarious position where they and their fans were maturing, and the music industry around them was undergoing a sea change. But if you’re going to successfully reinvent yourself, you have to deliver the goods, and this album just didn’t do it. Not enough songs showcase their singing chops and beautiful harmonies and they just can’t pull off some of the material.
Despite that, Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya actually got pretty good reviews when it came out, and fans of the band continue to praise it today. The marketplace did not agree, as the album barely cracked the Billboard 200 and only went gold in the U.S., continuing the band’s downward commercial slide. For a band that once monopolized the top of the singles chart, this record’s singles spent more time at the bottom, as “Pass You By” didn’t crack the Billboard 100 at all, while “Thank You In Advance” managed to peak at #80.
The band made one last attempt to win back its audience with 2002’s Full Circle, which saw Boyz II Men reunite with Babyface and receive a massive marketing push from its new label, Arista Records. That album failed too, and that was the end of the road for Boyz II Men as a major commercial force in the music industry. McCary departed soon afterwards due to his declining health, although there’s some dispute over how serious his condition was, and to this day, there is bad blood between him and the other three.
The Morrises and Stockman continued as a trio and spent most of the next two decades as a covers band and Vegas act (they did release a few studio albums of original material, but none of them got much attention or airplay). They’ve also taken part in a few 90s nostalgia tours with the likes of New Kids on the Block and 98 Degrees, so I guess that settles the whole “are they a boyband?” debate. They’ve also done some similar tours with R&B groups like En Vogue, TLC, Blackstreet, Color Me Badd, All-4-One and others, so maybe not?
Either way, they still sound great and are absolutely revered by fans and fellow artists. And it certainly isn’t out of the question that they could make a comeback — possibly as guest vocalists on a hit single from one of today’s top stars (they can make any song better — just look at Take That’s “Love Ain’t Here Anymore” which was a great song when it first came out in 1994 but got even better when Boyz II Men guested on it when Take That re-recorded it for their 2018 greatest hits package, Odyssey). If that happens, then maybe Boyz II Men has one more long run at the top of the Billboard #100 in it.