It’s a dicey business pitting your best work against your latest work as the members of Boyz II Men have done with the release of their appropriately titled 20th anniversary album, Twenty. Much like the R&B group’s last three decent-to-good cover albums, it inherently draws some uneasy comparisons. How does a “So Amazing” stand up against the similarly vibed “Four Seasons of Loneliness?” Or, the single, “More Than You’ll Ever Know (feat. Charlie Wilson),” against one of the longest standing #1 singles of all times, “I’ll Make Love to You?” Well, it helps that songs like “I Shoulda Lied” benefits from the return of Babyface penning and producing mid-tempo grooves and ballads for the group, always a winning formula for the (now) trio. Unfortunately, all the returning legendary collabos don’t fare as well.
It’s a dicey business pitting your best work against your latest work as the members of Boyz II Men have done with the release of their appropriately titled 20th anniversary album, Twenty. Much like the R&B group’s last three decent-to-good cover albums, it inherently draws some uneasy comparisons. How does a “So Amazing” stand up against the similarly vibed “Four Seasons of Loneliness?” Or, the single, “More Than You’ll Ever Know (feat. Charlie Wilson),” against one of the longest standing #1 singles of all times, “I’ll Make Love to You?” Well, it helps that songs like “I Shoulda Lied” benefits from the return of Babyface penning and producing mid-tempo grooves and ballads for the group, always a winning formula for the (now) trio. Unfortunately, all the returning legendary collabos don’t fare as well. One might also question the notion of covering yourself even at the 20 year mark, as the group does on Twenty, side-stepping some of the direct comparisons between old and new material, but merely replacing that comparison with one that places the best-selling version of “End of The Road” with this more recent take and questioning whether the gimmick was worth the risk.
The first issue is the sequencing of the first CD of the double-disc project. In the trendy anthem, “Believe,” Teddy Riley proves his best years aren’t quite behind him, at least not entirely. Nonetheless, the head-bobber could have easily been sung by any vocal group around and proves too leaden an opener for an anniversary setlist worthy of a stronger vocal introduction. Riley steps in it again later on the muddied “Flow,” a cut that does anything but. Following Riley are producers Tim & Bob, a hitmaking duo that was responsible for the five weakest filler songs on the 12 million-selling, Grammy-Award winning II (“Vibin’,” “U Know,” “50 Candles”…really?). And they continue to do Boyz II Men no favors with the competent, but unexceptional “So Amazing” and the only slightly more memorable “Slowly” and “Will You Be There,” the latter coming at a more appropriate time, nearer the end. Newcomer Julian Bunetta decides to continue the trend of making fans yawn on the first disc’s first half with “Put Some Music On.” Not only are these project launchers un-ignitable duds in comparison to Boyz at their best, they also sport some of the weakest, most whining vocals of Boyz’ career. One could argue that the auto-tune heavy radio cut, “More Than You’ll Ever Know” featuring Uncle Charlie Wilson only continued the trend, so obviously cloying for radio is its slickly metallic production, but it’s heads and shoulders above its sequenced predecessors.
Then Babyface reminds everyone why he is the master who helped Boyz II Men become the Billboard record-holders of three of the top four charting #1 songs of all times –“Sweetest Day (feat. Mariah Carey),” “End of Our Road,” and “I’ll Make Love To You”— songs that place made Boyz Billboard’s biggest group of the ‘90s and a charting peer to The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Mariah Carey in charting #1s on the Pop charts. Babyface’s “I Shoulda Lied” could have easily fit into II or Motownphilly, two of the three albums that made Boyz II Men music royalty. Babyface repeats the feat later with the sentimental, but not syrupy “One More Dance” and to a lesser extent with the synthy, “One Up For Love” (co-produced by Khris & AL), ensuring three of the four most on-the-money vocals of Twenty. Snatching that fourth slot is the Da Internz, who adroitly follows up “I Shoulda Lied” with the thumping “Benefit a Fool,” a retro-soul doo wop worthy of The Four Tops. There isn’t a hair out of place on the thrilling, foot-stomper whose harmonies are the closest to Boyz at their 2002 Full Circle technical apex. The usually sound Rex Rideout drops the hot potato soon thereafter with the “Careless Whisper” derivative “Refuse to Reason.” Rounding out the first disc of original material since 2005’s equally uninspired Remedy is a surprising life-saver pop ballad for Teddy Riley’s apparently quite sinkable reputation, a highly melodic “End of the Day” featuring a Japanese singing, J-pop sensation Atsushi Sato of Exile.
Tim & Bob also rescue their reputation on the re-produced “MotownPhilly,” one of several bewildering re-recordings that are so little changed from the originals in production that listeners will wonder why the 60 million sellers bothered. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis deliver a note-faithful “On Bended Knee” that while technically proficient, lacks the youthful urgency of the original vocal. The jarring absence of Michael McCary’s speaking part on “On Bended Knee” only adds fuel to the question, one that whiffs of legal or financial considerations in this and other recreations. The only thing that seems to change on these lovingly and solidly sung re-recordings is a sense of pacing and, dare I say, vibrancy, particularly on “End of the Road.” For “Water Runs Dry,” “Four Seasons of Loneliness,” and the iconic “I’ll Make Love To You,” there is not enough changed in arrangement--or poorly changed, like the cheated closing of “I’ll Make Love To You”--and too much lost in the absence of McCary’s strong baritone/bass though occasionally someone is clearly pinch-hitting this position on backgrounds).
On the plus side, Shawn Stockman’s vocals stand out as pristine and clear as ever—perhaps better than before - even as melisma maestro Wanya’s whining affectations are begins to show signs of wear, while Nathan solidly holds the middle together, as always. For his part, Babyface brings a nuanced, additive warmth in a rich covering of “A Song for Mama,” making this cut at least worth the effort. On the closeout original “Not Like You,” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remind fans why Boyz still matter. Though the mid-tempo groove doesn’t return Boyz to their storied heights, the song does deliver its own, less obvious shine.
Overall, it’s nice to know that 10 albums and 20 years later, in the hands of the right producers the Boyz can still hit most of their marks with some enviable prowess on their hits and create some new standouts. Still, a more creative presentation of the bestsellers or an excavation of less celebrated but more creatively daring material on Evolution, Full Circle, and Nathan, Michael, Shawn, and Wanya would reveal an embarrassment of riches to draw from: songs that, if re-introduced, could have sounded fresh to those who missed out on their brilliance the first time. In the words of an unsung Boyz II Men gem, “Oh Well.” Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson