After performing at a well-received school Valentine’s Day party in 1989, the band managed to sneak backstage at a Philadelphia show by New Edition offshoot Bel Biv DeVoe. There Boyz II Men sang an a cappella version of New Edition’s ‘Can You Stand The Rain’, impressing Michael Bivins so much that he agreed to manage them. All set to record their debut album, however, delays and personality clashes led to founding member Marc Nelson’s departure, leaving the group a quartet.
With Bivins’ influence they scored a deal with Motown and began work on their debut album. 1991’s Cooleyhighharmony was written largely by the band and produced by Dallas Austin, who’d later oversee some of TLC’s biggest hits. It was a sparkling debut that mixed old-school R&B with contemporary influences; its two lead singles showcased their varied style. ‘Motownphilly’, co-written by Michael Bivins and featuring his rap cameo, utilised the upbeat, hip-hop-influenced New Jack Swing genre that had dominated the charts that year, while ‘It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday’ was a spine-tingling a cappella cover of GC Cameron’s 1975 hit, perfectly showcasing each member’s stunning vocals and close harmonies. Both singles raced up the charts on release, becoming US Top 5 hits. Other album highlights included the slow jams ‘Please Don’t Go’ and ‘This Is My Heart’, along with upbeat anthems ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Sympin’’, and the sensual ‘Uhh Ahh’.
With the band presenting a preppy, clean-cut look that was a fresh change from the street-tough image then dominating R&B, Cooleyhighharmony proved a huge success, quickly going multi-platinum as it reached No.3 in the US chart before selling over nine million copies. There was more success come awards season as the album won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals at the 1992 ceremony. Riding on its success, the group joined MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit tour in 1992 as an opening act, yet tragedy struck when their tour manager, Khalil Roundtree, was shot and killed in Chicago. Devastated, the band dedicated future performances of ‘Its So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday’ to him.
Between further gigs in 1992, Boyz II Men returned to the studio to record a song for the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang. Co-written and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and released on 30 June 1992, the super-smooth ‘End Of The Road’ would catapult them from R&B hopefuls to world-famous superstars as it became one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. Reaching the No1. position on 22 August, and remaining there for an astonishing 13 weeks, the song broke Elvis Presley’s 11-week record for the double-sided ‘Don’t Be Cruel’/‘Hound Dog’ – a record The King had held since 1956. 1993 saw a revamped Cooleyhighharmony released with ‘End Of The Road’ added as a bonus track, while the band issued a cover of The Five Satins’ song ‘In The Still Of The Nite’. Next came the Christmas Interpretations album, a collection of self-penned odes to Yuletide, alongside a luscious a cappella version of ‘Silent Night’.
After the runaway success of the previous two years, a lot was expected of Boyz II Men’s sophomore album, but 1994’s II delivered on all fronts. Written by the band and produced by such R&B luminaries as Tim & Bob, LA Reid, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it was a work that built on the strengths of the debut. Only the most optimistic would have predicted success on the scale of ‘End Of The Road’, but the Babyface-penned lead single ‘I’ll Make Love To You’, a similarly caramel-smooth crooner, went even further, topping the charts for 14 weeks. Its reign only came to an end when the group knocked themselves off the top spot with II’s second single, ‘On Bended Knee’, which went on to spend a further five weeks at No.1 – the first time since The Beatles that an act had replaced itself at the top of the US charts. The rest of the album (which also included the US No.2 hit ‘Water Runs Dry’) was a filler-free mix of uptempo dance tunes and slow numbers. Riding on the crest of the unprecedented success of its singles, II went on to sell over 8.6 million copies worldwide, while earning the band two Grammy Awards, one for Best R&B album, the other for Best R&B Performance for ‘I’ll Make Love To You’.
The remainder of 1994 and much of ’95 were spent touring the world, with the band only breaking off to work on collaborations. There was a Wanya Morris effort with Brandy on ‘Brokenhearted’, and group contributions to Michael Jackson’s ‘HIStory’ and LL Cool J’s ‘Hey Lover’. Their midas touch came to the fore once again on a collaboration with Mariah Carey. ‘One Sweet Day’, which was written by the band with Carey and Walter Afanasieff, ended up breaking their own record by spending 16 weeks at the top of the charts. At the end of 1995, Motown released The Remix Collection, which entered the US Top 20.
Their third album, 1997’s Evolution, met with mixed reviews, yet topped the US charts and became their highest-charting UK album for 10 years. Laden with the slow ballads that had become their trademark – including lead single ‘4 Seasons Of Loneliness’, which also hit the No.1 spot – the album suffered long-term after a global tour had to be postponed when Wanya Morris developed a benign polyp on his vocal chords, a setback from which he went on to fully recover.
After Motown’s parent company, Polygram, was sold in 1999, label restructuring found Boyz II Men reassigned to Universal, for whom they recorded 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya. The album found the group assuming greater control over their output, and they took on almost exclusive writing and production duties in an attempt to diversify from the Babyface-penned ballads for which they had become famous. Reviewed well and containing some excellent songwriting in the likes of ‘I Finally Know’ and ‘Pass You By’, it sold gold and made its mark in the US Top 5.
Departing from Universal the following year, the group signed to Arista, releasing the album Full Circle in 2002. A continuation of the more mature direction of its predecessor, the Babyface-penned slow number ‘The Color Of Love’ was issued as a single, helping the album reach No.10 in the States – though it was the last to feature the band as a quartet, as Michael McCary left in 2003 due to scoliosis.
Now a trio, Boyz II Men returned in 2004 with Throwback, a covers collection that paid tribute to their favourite R&B and soul songs. 2006 brought The Remedy, an album initially released only in Japan, where they still had a significant fanbase, before being later issued digitally via their website. The following year, the group re-signed to Universal, for whom they released Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA. A covers album produced by Randy Jackson, it featured sterling versions of classics such as Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’, Smoky Robinson’s ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’, and even an a cappella take on their own ‘End Of The Road’, which also featured singer Brian McKnight. A commercial success (it reached No.66 on the US R&B chart and No.8 in the UK), the album also fared well with the critics, earning Boyz II Men more Grammy nominations, this time for Best R&B Album, and Best R&B Performance for their version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ribbon In The Sky’. Randy Jackson returned to produce a third covers album, 2009’s Love, which featured re-workings of rock and pop songs not normally associated with the band.
Boyz II Men celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2011 by releasing Twenty, an album which featured their first original songs in a decade, alongside reworkings of their classics. Well received by critics, it also continued their commercial revival as it debuted at No.20 on the US charts. 2014 saw another album of new material, Collide, which found the band spreading their wings with a variety of new music styles. Though no new music has been forthcoming since, they continue to tour, staging residencies in Las Vegas and filling arena venues throughout the States.
No mere breakthrough, 1991's Cooleyhighharmony was one of the decade's biggest debuts, setting Boyz II Men well on their path to becoming what the RIAA certified the most successful R&B group of all time. Their sound, dubbed "hip-hop doo-wop" and aided in large part by the productions and arrangements of Dallas Austin, was a shrewd and flexible mix of contemporary and throwback elements. Fully exploiting the members' stunning vocal chops on ballads as a close harmony group, while hardly washed out when matched with densely layered upbeat material (new jack swing was still in full flight), the group put a mature collegiate spin on what were, at the time, the last two New Edition albums, updating the techniques reminiscent of the doo wop covered on Under the Blue Moon within a set that was as modern-sounding as the singles off Heart Break. It contains that rare mix of hot singles with several album cuts that could have just as easily been hits, the ultimate measure of a release that is both commercially and creatively successful. While the album was carried by four Top Ten R&B singles, two of which -- the swinging, anthemic "Motownphilly" and an a cappella version of the Cooley High soundtrack's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," the tear duct activator of 1991/1992 -- went Top Five on the pop chart, there is substantial depth. The non-single highlights include the sweet slow jam "This Is My Heart," sonically somewhere between Gwen Guthrie's "Outside in the Rain" and an organic Babyface ballad, and the frantic new jack swinger "Under Pressure," perhaps too much like "Motownphilly" or Dallas Austin's most chaotic Bomb Squad-inspired productions. In its original ten-song form, in fact, Cooleyhighharmony is a brisk 40-minute set built for front-to-back listening, though the sequencing is more natural with the "adagio" and "allegro" halves switched up. For many of those responsible for its multi-platinum status, it is the album of the early '90s, "Uhh Ahh"'s amusing libidinal melisma notwithstanding. Words: Andy Kellman
With their second album, II, Boyz II Men assured their place at the top of the charts, as well as history. "I'll Make Love to You," the album's first single, stayed on the top of the charts for over two months, only to be unseated by "On Bended Knee," the album's second single. Not surprisingly, II is a carefully constructed crowd pleaser, accentuating all of the finest moments from their hit debut. While there are some high-energy dance tracks, the album's main strength is its slower numbers, where the group's vocals soar. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Evolution is supposed to capture Boyz II Men in full maturity, but it sounds surprisingly similar to their blockbuster II. Like that album, Evolution relies on ballads, downplaying the group's dance-pop side. There are still several up-tempo numbers on the record, but it's clear that the group and their producers were more concerned with smooth ballads like "4 Seasons of Loneliness" and "A Song for Mama," which they deliver with typical grace. However, Boyz II Men's signature sound is beginning to sound like a formula, especially since the group fails to offer any new twists on their trademark hip-hop doo wop. There's enough strong material on Evolution to satisfy Boyz II Men's large fan base, but they will truly need to evolve on their fourth album in order to stay viable. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Even if Boyz II Men's third album Evolution didn't rival II in terms of commercial clout, the group was still inescapable. Every male urban vocal group that reached the pop and R&B charts were clearly indebted to the quartet's stylish blend of old-school harmony, post-Aretha hyper-vocalizing, and lite hip-hop beats. The group returned to action in the fall of 2000 with Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, a nearly eponymous title for their first full-fledged adult album. And, as adults, they've made sure they're responsible for their own music -- at least one member (usually all) has songwriting credits for all but two of the album's 14 songs, and the group is credited with all but four of the album's productions. Usually, when a popular group seizes control of their reins in such a dramatic fashion, the result is muddled to say the least, but a remarkable thing happens here -- the group succeeds. True, they don't expand on the formula they developed on II, but they do fulfill the expectations that album set. There are no unexpected twists or turns, just the standard lush ballads and swinging hip-hop soul, but it delivers both sonically and substantively. Not every cut on the record is a standout, but even the average cuts are pleasant, and the best of the batch are either seductive or effortlessly danceable. Also, the group is beginning to cut back on their vocal histrionics, resulting in a record that is truly their most mature yet. It might not be their best -- it doesn't have the powerhouse singles of II -- but Boyz II Men make up for it by demonstrating that they can do much of this on their own, and still sound like the standard-bearers for urban soul. Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Boyz II Men grew up with 2000's Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, providing a really fine, mature urban soul album, but not many noticed, so it was time for another new start in 2002. They left Motown and signed with Arista, where Antonio "L.A." Reid had successfully set up shop, breaking new acts and re-establishing old ones -- with the latter clearly in mind when he executive produced Boyz II Men's Full Circle, with the Boyz handling production duties. Everybody involved apparently decided that the best way to bring the boyz into the 2000s is by hedging their bets: offering a little of the stilted, early-'80s funk-influenced hip-hop that marked modern soul, while offering a lot of adult contemporary balladry. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Three years after the all-covers Throwback -- a release that included some pleasantly surprising choices for new looks, like One Way's "Cutie Pie" and Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love" -- Boyz II Men reappear with yet another covers affair. As indicated by the title, the trio changes its focus to Motown for a set that ranges thematically and chronologically from the Temptations' "Just My Imagination" to Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" to the Commodores' "Easy" -- and, as something of a sly acknowledgment that they were once on Motown themselves, they close out the set with an a cappella version of "End of the Road" (featuring Brian McKnight). Their backing is mostly all-star caliber, including the Dap-Kings Horns, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, percussionist Luis Conte, and string arranger Larry Gold. The material tends to work best when they sound relatively relaxed, as opposed to when it is obvious that they are trying very hard to honor the originals while being over-demonstrative with their obviously gifted voices. It's not that the disc won't please fans, because it likely will, despite Boyz II Men's continued shortage of new songs; but it's nearly impossible at this point to add anything to the likes of "It's the Same Old Song," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," or "Money (That's What I Want)" -- no matter how well they are handled. Words: Andy Kellman
This covers album released in 2009 was produced by American Idol's Randy Jackson and features a collaboration with Michael Buble.
Disc one of Twenty constitutes Boyz II Men's first full-length set of original material since 2002’s Full Circle, an album released just prior to the departure of bass vocalist Michael McCary. The title here isn’t the only manner in which the group acknowledges its longevity. They work with past collaborators such as Tim & Bob, Teddy Riley, and Babyface, each of whom either produces or co-produces three tracks. Rather than attempt to compete with younger acts on the charts, they largely stick to their tried and true approach and appeal to their longtime listeners. Some of the slower songs get a little raunchy, but most of them -- highlighted by “More Than You’ll Ever Know,” featuring Charlie Wilson -- switch between romantic pleading and uplifting/inspirational modes. It’s their most enjoyable work since 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya. On the second disc, Boyz II Men cover themselves. In some cases, the new looks at their hits are closer to re-creations than reinterpretations, with only slight variations on the vocal and instrumental arrangements. That Boyz II Men still have it, both individually and collectively, is undeniable; their group harmonies sound as easy as ever. That’s what they had over most contemporary R&B acts in 1991, and that's what they have over all of them in 2011. Words: Andy Kellman