Boyz II Men have sold 90 million albums. The only artists with similarly stratospheric sales—Elvis, Bob Marley, the Beatles—are icons, but the Boyz radiate pure banality. In their prime, the Philly quartet (now down to a trio) wore its inoffensiveness like a strapless sundress: Their zero-danger sweaters-and-spectacles image inevitably drove critics crazy, and it didn’t help that the classic groups they called to mind—the Temptations, in particular—oozed the emotional credibility they sorely lacked. But let us at least admit that the group’s early singles offer pure, enduring pleasure: The “plaintive, bluesy harmonies beneath Motown melodies” formula never failed them—except on the album tracks—and “Motownphilly” is as good a ’90s pop song as any not written by their pervert-genius antithesis, R. Kelly. (They wrote “I’ll Make Love to You”; he wrote “I’m Fucking You Tonight.”)
Now, Boyz II Men offer us a late-career covers album, Rod Stewart–style. On A Journey Through Hitsville, they offer pleasant but utterly unremarkable versions of some of the best pop songs of all time—”Tracks of My Tears,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” Admittedly, their a cappella version of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” is lush with harmony and rather beautiful. But ultimately, Hitsville‘s unrelenting smoothness verges on kitsch and quickly becomes grating. And really, shouldn’t Boyz II Men spend more time waxing nostalgic over their own sound? Is it too soon to call for a revival of the New Jack Swing? Recall “Poison” by cohorts Bell Biv Devoe: catchy melody, dissonant harmony, and a fake snare that sounds like a landed punch in a boxing video game. Surely this deserves at least an ironic hipster revival.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 6, 2007