Serenading the Boys

Seems like all the ballers have gone to reform school. Jodeci, who'd always seemed like R. Kelly's partners in licentiousness, dissolved after 1995's The Show the After Party the Hotel, which felt like nothing short of an invitation to STDs. DeVante Swing faded into the tapestry, and Mr. Dalvin was re(still)born in cyber-chaps. But K-Ci and JoJo, the group's two most potent voices, teamed up for their own concept project to cultivate the perfect last-dance song for prom nights nationwide.

Well, not quite, but donning tuxedos and silk scarves, and blessed with a gift for catchy hooks and pleasing harmony, the two have largely abandoned their former hedonism for the rarefied air of urban crossover. K-Ci's malleable voice is deeply suggestive, and JoJo provides a bedrock of syrup. Together, they've been responsible for one king-size ballad on each of their two previous albums: "All My Life" and "Tell Me It's Real."

On X, it's "Crazy" that fills the manufactured-passion, girl-you-sure-are-swell quota. Riding a vocoded chorus that makes the boys sound even more clinical than usual, its quantized quality renders the duo almost aharmonic. Yet its overprocessing is also the key to its success, infecting the song with a sort of redeeming machine soul. Fortunately, the technological interference isn't always needed. "I Can't Find the Words" allows K-Ci to explore his Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke complexes, wailing over a subtle three-part harmony: "Like a flower growing by the spring in the middle of the desert/You're myyyyy [he gets wide here] oasis when I'm tired and thirsty/Yes you are/You fill me up till I get enough/You're like the dewdrops on my face."

Profound narcissist R. Kelly
photo: Reisig & Taylor
Profound narcissist R. Kelly

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R. Kelly
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Jive
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K-Ci & JoJo
X
MCA
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Boyz II Men
Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya
Universal
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K-Ci and JoJo together aren't half the songwriter R. Kelly is, and most of their album slides into anodyne anonymity, exactly the type of ballads folks like Joe try to pass off as deep thought. Of the new school of thinking singers, Carl Thomas has come closest to complexity, but (though his fur coat is nice) he still can't hold a candle to Kelly's pain. Jail-suit harmonizers Next and Jagged Edge seem sincere too, but as composers, they're still bobbing for hackneyed hooks.

So it should come as no surprise that the sellingest r&b come-ons this season come not from the soul, but from the whitewashed acolytes in its hole. On Black & Blue, which has moved almost 5 million copies to date, the Backstreet Boys bite 'N Sync biting Boyz II Men, who now stand next to Full Force as it-ain't-our-fault cultivators of the new four-part, one-outfit pop. Sure, Boyz aren't behind the curtain penning teen-pop standards (yet), but their cardigan soul gave new life to the desexed harmonies of doo-wop, and unwittingly laid a road map for this generation of Clean South crooners with no need of parental advisory stickers.

You can blame them by name. Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, Boyz II Men's latest, is their first in three years and comes some six years after their last notes of relevance. While r&b slept with hip-hop, found its groove, and decided to get its fuck on, the Boyz stood by, bewildered. Their last album, Evolution, nodded to the hot-swapping going on all around them, but all the Boyz did was prove they had eight left feet, tripping all over themselves any time they approached dancefloor temperature.

Accordingly, you'd think they'd have abandoned the club for this (second) comeback. But with this album, they've brought the pain full circle, mercilessly ripping off the boy bands who've made the Boyz' model their bread (winner) and butta (love). The results are frightful, a collection of songs only a drunk uncle could groove to. "Beautiful Women" is so laden with fatuous conceit—"If there could only be three more of me/Then I could keep all these beautiful women"—that it defies reason. "Bounce, Shake, Move, Swing" opens with techno pulsations and expands into an adult-contemporary strip-club jam, like they were too scared to go to Black Gold and ended up at the seniors' lounge down the road watching MTV Jams.

That they tried and failed to mesh lust with trust is understandable. The Boyz would never be caught facing allegations of sex with underage girls like R. Kelly, or be caught with their willies out like K-Ci on an L.A. stage last month. They've always thought themselves too dignified for the hot hustle—as Wanya told Vibe recently, "We have a different way of expressing our sexuality. . . . Someone says 'thong.' We say 'lingerie.' " Though their ambitions are no less predatory, Boyz II Men are too scared to ask directly for pussy: "Let me dive into your ocean so I can find your precious pearls." C'mon, fellas, enough with the abstract, pretty phrasing. Let your feelings show! And if you're penning purity jams, then dammit be pure. Even saucy R. Kelly knows when to turn off the love pulse. R&b gets no more innocuous than his Celine Dion (!) duet "I'm Your Angel," his track for Michael Jackson, "You Are Not Alone," or his own goopy "I Believe I Can Fly." Just as his potential for the profane is vast, so is his capacity for good; one wouldn't exist without the other. As R. Kelly's known for years, the beauty's how you grind them.

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