At first, they seem too good to be true. Four twentysomething African-American males, spiffed uplike a hip-hop version of the Four Freshmen, crooning melt-in-your-mouth love songs.
No cursing, glowering or pornographic images. No menacing promo pictures, bizarre album covers or controversial videos. Make no mistake: Boyz II Men is a group that even Bob Dole could love.
Therein lies the problem. Somewhere along the line, the group picked up the "pop packaging" rap. Natty attire and middle-class elegance became calculated image sculpting to some observers, not matters of personal taste. Opting for genuine romance over verbal gang rape was seen as middle-of-the-road crossover pandering. Selling out, even. After all, homeboys from Philadelphia don't really act like that. Right?
"When we sing certain songs and make certain statements, it's taken as almost foreign sometimes," said Shawn Stockman, one-fourth of the quartet. "As if we're something that can't exist. When we first came out, we were just being ourselves. It wasn't like "we aren't going to do this' or that we weren't going to wear certain types of clothes. We just have our visions of how we feel a relationship should be. The flowers, the walks in the park. That kind of stuff. But we aren't alone or unique. There are a lot of people who like the things we like."
More than 12-million and counting, to be exact. The group (Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, Stockman and Michael McCary) is one of the biggest pop acts of the decade. The act is the cream of a more-than-bountiful crop of doo-hop hopefuls (All-4-One) and one of the vanguards of pop's "nouveau soul" movement.
Besides the phenomenal success of Boyz II Men's two albums (the most recent, II, has sold 8-million copies and is still in the top 10 after 41 weeks), the group has two record-setting singles. End of the Road stayed at No. 1 for a record 13 weeks in 1992. Last year's I'll Make Love To You held the top spot for 14 weeks. The songs broke marks set by Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston, respectively.
Boyz II Men also contributed some backup work to Michael Jackson's just-released HIStory album.
Their music stands out in a field of drum-loop riding new-jacksters, tongue-twisting rappers and gangsta shock jocks. Boyz II Men's tuneful, melody-driven R&B owes more to the classic sound of Philadelphia soul than it does to, say Ice Cube.
That partially explains the "sellout" charge. And the group is in the right place at the right time, Nathan Morris said. Geniune songs and genuine voices are making a comeback, and Boyz II Men have the best goods in town.
"I just think that music is making a big circle," Nathan Morris said. "Everything is kind of repeating itself. Back in the '60s you had the Temptations and the Four Tops on one side with their style of music, and on the other side you had the more renegade types of R&B. It's the same today."
If image were everything, a lot more well-dressed, sweet-singing groups would be burning up the pop charts. The success of Boyz II Men's 1992 Cooleyhigharmony set off a furious cloning process. Old-school-influenced harmony groups popped up almost monthly, it seemed.
Few of them, however, had the Boyz's voices. Then there's Babyface (Kenny Edmonds), the pop scene's most celebrated songwriter, who composed or helped compose End of the Road and I'll Make Love To You.
"He's the icing on the cake, and a couple of the candles," Wanya Morris said.
The rest of the sound comes from the Boyz themselves; their trademark lush harmonies are their own. All four have extensive high school music backgrounds. That's an important plus, since many blame the current state of hip-hop and New Jack R&B on the decline of public school music education.
So if Boyz II Men sound more soulful and less cloying than some of the other harmony groups on the scene, thank the Philadelphia High School of The Creative and Performing Arts. It's why they can routinely pull off the singing-while-dancing stunt, one that has routinely stumped other performers. It's also why they can tackle formidable pop nuggets like the Beatles' Yesterday, and G.C. Cameron's It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday without flinching. (The Boyz sang Yesterday as high school students.)
"You could have picked any four kids out of that school, and they would have come up the same way we did," Nathan Morris said.
They Boyz often wish for those days, singing in the hallways, performing for fun. That's one of the reasons they built their new Stone Creek Studios in the Pennsylvania woods. It's a place for them to go and recharge their batteries, interact with other artists and plan for life after II.
But exactly where do you go after multiple Grammys, 12-million records sold and pop-chart ubiquity?
"There are always going to be different forks in the road," said Wanya Morris. "It's just a matter of choosing which dream to follow. You have to look through your dreams and follow them in the right frame of mind, with the Lord behind you. That's not just important for us, it's important for everybody."
Boyz II Men will play the Budweiser Superfest at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the USF Sun Dome. Also, Montell Jordan and Mary J. Blige. Tickets are $25 and $35.