Boyz II Men
Porsche Design Space
Monday, September 19
Better than: Color Me Badd’s 20th Anniversary.
There’s no overstating the way Boyz II Men shaped the R&B and pop landscapes. The group’s songs provided the soundtrack for many a middle school dance in the 1990s; their harmonies acted as Hallmark cards for those who didn’t yet know how to express themselves (romantically, sexually or otherwise), their tempos perfect for swaying from side-to-side with arms extended as far as they could go. Every song they released was eaten up by schoolgirls who thought they were women; every ballad was a radio-ready Barbie Dream House.
Celebrating their twentieth anniversary last night, Boyz II Men haven’t lost their place in history, but they have certainly loosened their (always respectful) stranglehold of R&B. (First of all, name another R&B group in 2011; this is an age of Chris Browns and Trey Songzes.) Performing in front of an intimate crowd of long legs, Vogue business cards and Larry Gagosian associates, their classic songs went over very well, the grown-and-sexy women in attendance practically causing a windstorm with their eyelashes. “End of the Road” erupted into a wailing singalong; “On Bended Knee” shivered the crowd not once but twice. Still, backroom chit-chat seemed to take precedence when newer material came into the set list.
And newer material there was: Boyz II Men will soon release Twenty, a double album of recent compositions and old hits reworked. Shawn Stockman, largely the face of the group, tried to allay fears, saying, “Don’t worry, we didn’t do a techno remix of ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ or something.” People laughed (though, having just gone to the listening session for Gloria Estefan’s Pharrell-produced album, I know this isn’t something to joke about). They instead turned the BPM dial leftward, each ballad more ballad-y than the last; they drove their old hits far under the speed limit. Stockman noted that “the art of the ballad has seemed to dissipate. The slow songs [on the radio] aren’t even slow songs. We thought no one wanted to hear it any more.” Regardless, “Save Me One More Dance,” a new record of theirs written by Babyface, was introduced by Wanya Morris as “one of those typical Boyz II Men love songs.” Some people clapped.
At a time when the average marriage lasts eight years, a 20-year relationship is a wonder. Nathan Morris, the one time he spoke, was realistic. He spoke on the doubts that people had of the group, and that the members had of themselves; that their best days could be behind them. He acknowledged the tensions within the group—”even up ’til the moment we stepped onstage.” The fact that there were only three stools was a disappointment to the crowd, probably more to the actual members of the group. (Michael McCary, the bass, had been in talks to rejoin the family, but negotiations fell through.) A piano sat where his seat would’ve been.
As they broke to mingle and drink with the crowd, the stereo began to play their next single, “Believe.” It was an appropriate title, but it was also really reminiscent of a club-ready 112 song I heard years ago.
Critical bias: I might’ve jumped onstage and started high-stepping if they performed “Motownphilly.”
Overheard: “There are, like, actual adults here. I feel weird.”
Random notebook dump: Back in the day, Boyz II Men had a classic cool style, refined and collegiate but current. Now that they’re grown up, it’s like they don’t know how to dress themselves. (Yeah, yeah, boys to men, or whatever.) I’m no fashion writer, but Shawn’s tie was a couple of inches too short, making him look like an old intern. Nathan wore a Jazze Pha costume in a vest, blacked-out Phillies hat and dark shades, his button-down untucked. Wanya, whose head was otherwise shaven, had a patch of hair on the left hemisphere: a misplaced mohawk, a comma growing out of the side of his skull. We all thought it was a weird shadow; it wasn’t.
On Bended Knee (vocal warm-up, a capella)
More Than You’ll Ever Know
Save Me One More Dance
I’ll Make Love To You
On Bended Knee
I Shoulda Lied
End of the Road