When Boyz II Men was first heard by the record buying public in 1991, with their instant hit single, "Motownphilly", no one had any idea that the modern doo wop quartet would become one of the biggest selling R&B acts in history. With such R&B standards like "End of the Road", "I'll Make Love to You", "On Bended Knee" and the Mariah Carey duet, "One Sweet Day", Boyz II Men went on to hold five of the top twenty Billboard Hot 100 chart positions of all time, including three in the top five. Not bad for a group of round-the-way boys from Philadelphia's High School of the Creative and Performing Arts. Of course, Newton's Law of Gravity applies even to behemoth boy bands with seven platinum singles and over 30 million albums worldwide. The irony in Boyz II Men's case is that as their music matured in complexity and technical difficulty, the US music buying public was abandoning them by the millions.
Their last two major label projects, 2000's Nathan, Michael, Shawn and Wanya (Universal) and 2002's Full Circle (Arista) were the most satisfying projects of the Boyz repertoire. I personally purchased copies of Full Circle for friends and still never let an opportunity pass to play tracks for surprised listeners who squeal in delight, "That's Boyz II Men? Wow!" I winced when their label's A&R staff chose the weaker tracks of both projects as introductory singles (the limp "Color of Love"?) and cursed their marketing departments for dooming such incredible music with marketing that aged the men by decades (The Originals are Back!-who were they, the Temptations?). While neither album broke platinum in the US, in Japan Full Circle managed to move a hefty 3 million units, demonstrating that good music's still appreciated somewhere in the world. In 2004, when Boyz went independent with Koch Records and released Throwback, an album of languid, forgettable covers, I forgave the faux paux with barely a murmur. Unfortunately, even the most devoted fan must eventually realize when their musical idol's magic has dwindled, perhaps never to return. With Boyz latest, DOA release, Remedy, it's time I accept that this street corner group's epic fairy tale has come to the end of its road.
Part of what made Boyz II Men standout during an era where trios, quartets and quintets were flooding the R&B marketplace (Jodeci, All-4-One, Dru Hill, Az Yet, Color Me Badd, etc.) was that Boyz had a bass in a world overflowing with tenors. What Michael McCary reportedly cost the group in missed concert revenue due to his chronic illness, he more than made up for in providing texture and tonal richness in the recordings of a group top heavy in high pitched vocalists. To the untrained ear, McCary was most audible to listeners as the sweet talker ala the Floaters and classic Teddy Pendagrass. However, harmonically, he anchored the other member's weeping voices, he was the ying to Wanya's yang, the group's melisma loving, near contralto closer of every Boyz hit. On Throwback where the material was at least interesting and familiar, the original work Boyz covered generally lacked a vocal bass line, so you only missed McCary just a tad. On the lukewarm, original compositions of Remedy you're begging for a bass, any bass to help reclaim the trademark Boyz II Men four-part harmonies that catapulted them to stardom. On Remedy's sequential series of dismal ballads "Gonna Have", "Here I Come" and "Perfect Love Song" Nathan, Wanya and Shawn's whispery, wavering tenors are barely indistinguishable from one another. With the possible exception of the sunshine track "Morning Love" and the N-Sync flavored "Muzak", the dense, ennui inspiring vocal arrangements Boyz favor does them no favors.
It's not just that Remedy too often lacks vocal intricacy; it's also the glaring lack of maturity in the material. Mid-tempo grooves "Ego" and "You Don't Love Me" are demonstrative of material that feels too young for the men these boys have become, songs unworthy of them even as teens. A Harlequin romance novel put to wax, Remedy's overwrought sexuality and dime store philosophizing showcase lyrics with the depth of a street puddle, a stunning accusation given Shawn Stockman's historic genius at song craft. The slick production is long on gimmicky sound effects as in "Misunderstood" and the thin "Booed Up" and short on melody and movement. There is no journey for listeners on any of these tracks, no storytelling or architecture meriting notice. If Boyz hadn't collaboratively produced and written the majority of Full Circle and Nathan..., I would argue that Boyz lacks the capacity to pull off all the hats they wear as the artists, writers and producers on Remedy. I can't; Boyz have proven they have the culinary skills to pull off a musical feast when they're hungry enough to do the work. Maybe as thirty-something men with Grammys to spare and an enviable sells record, they don't feel they have anything else to prove. Still, do these talented vets really want to go out like this? If only to preserve the legacy of what they've accomplished, maybe reclaiming a little "Ego" is exactly what these brothers' need.
The open secret of Boyz biggest albums was that the filler tracks possessed some of the least inspiring R&B you'd ever heard. The multiple singles were always the saving grace of their first two best-selling projects. With 1997's Evolution the Boyz moved toward breaking that trend. Full Circle and Nathan...were almost filler free. Now imagine a Boyz II Men album with no obvious singles and all that early filler, each track made with the ingredients of the Boys II Men alchemy but without the wizardry that turned their lead into gold. If you can imagine that, you can imagine Remedy. Sadly, for Boyz and their fans it isn't a remedy to their skydiving careers, though we'd at least hoped it would cure the devolution of their music.
By L. Michael Gipson