I had just about given up hope on Boyz II Men. They seemed to be heading into their third decade as a recording act in a bid for the title ofAmerica’s best-sounding cover band, releasing three consecutive albums full of remakes. The first album, Throwback? Pretty decent overall, with some adventurous sounding revisions. The Motown covers album? I understood it, after all the fellas began their career on the legendary label. The soft-rock covers album? Pass. BIIM sounded like they were on auto-pilot, like they had just given up. I was extremely disappointed. I didn’t think Nate, Shawn and Wanya were ready for the Rod Stewart Retirement Home yet.
As it turns out, they’re not. Twenty is easily BIIM’s best album in a decade. The fellas sound energized, strangely enough, as they mark two full decades since their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, made a splash on R&B and fans worldwide. Boasting material from an A-level list of collaborators including Babyface, Tim & Bob, and Jam & Lewis and still in full control of those silky harmonies, the trio makes a solid return to form here. The fact that all of these guys played a big part in BIIM’s original run of hits (and have an obvious chemistry with them) speaks volumes to the quality of this material.
Much like with the recent Johnny Gill album Still Winning, Twenty is contemporary without sounding desperate. Even the obligatory Auto-Tuned song, “More Than You’ll Ever Know”, is a well-written slice of mature pop/soul. The fact that it’s melodically sound makes up for the fact that four of the best voices in modern R&B history (they are joined by The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, who also co-produces) are relying on vocal trickery, something that should draw my ire just on principle. Thankfully, it’s the only song on Twenty that goes that route, and the remainder of the album is pretty much classic BIIM. Also much like classic BIIM, the uptempo stuff doesn’t totally come off. One of the great mysteries of modern R&B prior to this album was the fact that BIIM had never worked with new jack swing architect Teddy Riley. The joints TR produces on this album, including the lyrically embarrassing but rhythmically hypnotic “Flow”, while not awful, should serve as proof that maybe they should have stayed along their separate paths.
The Boyz are far steadier with songs like the airy “So Amazing”, a song that would’ve nestled in perfectly on any of their albums. Michael Jackson might’ve drowned Bubbles for a song like this, and it’s perfect for feathery, understated vocalizing. “One Up for Love” is anthemic in the best possible way. You’ll be singing the chorus in your head for days on end, and this should be the song that restores them to radio glory (although the question then becomes, what radio format, aside from urban adult contemporary, is even gonna play BIIM these days? A damn shame if you ask me…). “Put Some Music On” is one of their better bedroom fans, and “Will You Be There” is reminiscent of Jam & Lewis’s best work-even if it’s helmed by Tim & Bob.
As good as Twenty is, it’s also a bit frustrating to hear material this solid and feel like BIIM have pissed away the last three quarters of a decade making mediocre-to-shitty covers albums when there could’ve been another two or three albums like this. Thankfully, they’re all pretty young men, and there will be more opportunities (hopefully) to repeat this album from a qualitative standpoint. This album also contains a 2nd disc of re-recorded Boyz II Men classics, which is a good commercial strategy, but for diehard fans, only gives us an unnecessary CD of songs we already have, particularly frustrating when you consider that the remakes are pretty damn similar to the originals.
However you look at it, it’s great to have Boyz II Men back close to (if not) at the top of their games creatively. If only all twentieth anniversaries could be this good.
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