Boyz II Men in 1994
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Boyz II Men Celebrate 25 Years Of Their Masterstroke Second Album, 'II'
As soon as an artist experiences success with their debut album, the shadow of the dreaded "sophomore slump" starts swirling on the horizon. In the 1990s, however, there were quite a few second album smashes that showed just how defiantly that curse can crumble under rarified musical talent, mastercraft songwriting and record-breaking runs at the top of the charts. Throughout the pre-millennium decade, Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest delivered undeniable game changers with Nevermind and Low End Theory, TLC and Oasis more than doubled the achievements of their multi-platinum debuts with CrazySexyCool and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and Boyz II Men achieved inescapable pop culture ubiquity with their 12x platinum-selling, multiple record-breaking, triple GRAMMY Award-winning album, II, which celebrates its 25th anniversary milestone this month.
Spearheaded by the strength of a pair of Billboard number one singles ("I'll Make Love To You" and "On Bended Knee") and a Billboard number two chaser ("Water Runs Dry"), II debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart, maintained a solid five-week run at the top spot and ended up staying on the charts for just shy of two full years. A couple months before the release of II, the Philly foursome offered up the Babyface-penned "I'll Make Love to You" as the album's lead single and the steamy ballad had radio and MTV on absolute lockdown during the late summer of 1994. "I'll Make Love to You" ended up eventually tying the record for the most weeks at number one by matching Whitney Houston's 14-week stretch of "I Will Always Love You" from The Bodyguard.
The group’s unparalleled vocal harmonies and the impossible-not-to-sing-along-with chorus of "I'll Make Love To You" might’ve been enough to surpass Houston's record if only they hadn’t been knocked out of the top spot by… the album's second single, "On Bended Knee." By December, the summer sizzler handed the crown over to the winter weeper as Boyz II Men became only the third musical act of all-time to replace themselves at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (only Elvis Presley and The Beatles had achieved it before them). To look back on these astounding achievements and to commemorate 25 years of II, The Recording Academy spoke with Boyz II Men's Wanya Morris and Nathan Morris about what all went into making their second album such an immediate and long-lasting success.
Wanya Morris: After the success of our first album, it felt like a lot of people were starting to realize that Boyz II Men was a force to be reckoned with. Our voices and our harmonies were evolving and becoming more mature. That allowed us to try new things and people were really receptive to our creativity. It seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. I remember walking down the street near Yodoyabashi Station in Osaka and people would run up to us and yell out our names. It felt so huge because in our minds, we were just four dudes from Philly.
Nathan Morris: For me, it was all a whirlwind because singing wasn’t really my first choice for a career. I grew up wanting to play professional football, but my mom pushed me into going to a performing arts school. That’s actually the whole reason why there’s even a Boyz II Men at all. I got bored at school, so I just started a singing group in my spare time. Everything that was happening for us as Boyz II Men wasn’t really anything that I had ever dreamed of or expected. So, I was just taking everything in as it came, enjoying it, and trying to soak it all up.
Following the massive success of their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, and its pair of Top 5 singles ("Motownphilly" and their cover of G. C. Cameron's "It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday"), Boyz II Men's doo-wop-meets-New Jack Swing-meets-hip-hop musical hybrid and their relentless work ethic were all on full display during a frenzied pop culture blitz that included opening for M.C. Hammer's 2 Legit 2 Quit tour, filming an episode of MTV Unplugged with Joe Public and Shanice, earning a Top 5 standalone single with their cover of "In the Still of the Night (I Remember)," appearing in the holiday episode "Twas the Night Before Christening" on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and recording the double-platinum holiday album Christmas Interpretations (featuring the seasonal radio hit "Let It Snow" with Brian McKnight). During this crucial between-albums timeframe, they also scored their first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with "End Of The Road" from the Boomerang soundtrack. At the time, "End of the Road" broke the record for longevity at the top of the charts with its impressive 13-week run. It would be the first of three times that Boyz II Men were a part of achieving this notable accolade.
Nathan Morris: Going into the second album, our confidence level was pretty high. Motown didn't really know what to do with us when they signed us, so we got to write almost the whole first album by ourselves. Since that album went nine times platinum, that gave us a lot of confidence as writers and producers going into the second album.
Wanya Morris: Honestly, it was a pretty hectic time. Things had gotten so big with the first album and then "End Of The Road" came out and blew up. We were really feeling the pressure, but the process had to start somewhere. So, we just did what we always do, which is get in the studio and start writing songs and recording demos.
Nathan Morris: Dallas Austin had produced most of our first album, but he wasn’t available for the second album. So, he recommended we try working with Tim & Bob, who were kind of his B-team. We got in the studio with them and started working on a bunch of the songs that we felt good about. We clicked really well, so Tim & Bob ended up producing most of the songs on the second album.
Wanya Morris: I first met Tim & Bob when I worked on a song called "One More Try" for Another Bad Creation's second album. I traveled to Atlanta to work with them and we ended up hanging out and kicking it almost that whole summer, just writing songs and recording demos. I brought those songs back to the guys and our A&R team and it was decided that we should all fly out to Atlanta to work with them. That’s where the bulk of the songs on the second album came from.
Alongside working with Tim & Bob for most of the recording of what would become II, Boyz II Men's chart-topping success also earned them the opportunity to craft a couple of songs with some of the most celebrated producers in the business—Midas-touch hitmaker Babyface ("I'll Make Love To You" and "Water Runs Dry") and the legendary dream team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ("On Bended Knee" and "All Around The World").
Nathan Morris: Getting to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis? Man, we were just such big fans of theirs ever since we were kids. We were praying we could get them on the album, so we were really excited to get to work with them.
Wanya Morris: Jam and Lewis are artist-producers, so their first move was trying to gauge our musical capabilities. For "On Bended Knee," we were with them a whole day, but we hadn’t heard anything because they wouldn’t let us inside of the studio while they were recording the instrumental tracks! After they finished the music, we knocked the vocals out so quick that they decided to try for a second song with us. That’s how we ended up writing "All Around The World" with them. They could feel our synergy and trusted us enough to just let us do what we do.
Nathan Morris: After "End Of The Road," we were really excited to work with Babyface again. It just made so much sense to do a couple more songs with him for the second album. We really loved "I'll Make Love to You" for the album, but we also wanted to try different things for our singles. In the grand scheme of artistry, that’s your thinking. But in the grand scheme of record sales, when you go multi-platinum with something, you’re expected to make another one. So, we had a bit of a dilemma when it came time to pick the lead single for II.
Wanya Morris: We actually fought really hard against having "I'll Make Love to You" be the lead single. We had just come off of "End Of The Road" and we didn’t want to come back with a song that had the same sound. Our label was adamant about it though. They did all this market research and we were just researching our hearts, so we were told to deal with it. Clearly, they were right on that one!
After the release of II, Boyz II Men became certified global superstars. The album achieved multi-platinum sales in Canada and Australia, and it hit the top of the album charts in France and New Zealand. In fact, international demand was so high for the blockbuster album that the gifted vocalists upped their game by rerecording the album’s three big hits and their acapella cover of The Beatles' "Yesterday" in Spanish for a special version of the album called II: Yo Te Voy a Amar. As had become their signature move, the guys had no problem rising to the challenge and possibly even outdoing themselves in the process.
Nathan Morris: Recording those tracks in Spanish wasn’t really that difficult since we had already learned a bit of it in school. We had a producer, K. C. Porter, that translated everything for us and helped us with proper annunciation. One thing that we did notice is that singing in Spanish is a lot easier than singing in English. The English language is a bit choppy and Spanish is smoother and more legato in nature. I think some of our songs sound even better in Spanish than they do in English.
Wanya Morris: When it came time to do the second album songs in Spanish, it wasn’t really that hard because the songs already existed. We just had to emulate the vocal intensity of the rewritten lyrics. We only performed live in Spanish one time and it wasn’t even one of those songs. We actually did "End Of The Road" live for Telemundo. After that, we didn’t do it again!
At a time when memorable music videos were just as important as radio hits, Boyz II Men were MTV mainstays by consistently delivering cinematic gold. Having such good chemistry with director Lionel C. Martin on their first music videos for "Motownphilly," "It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," "Uhh Ahh," "End Of The Road" and "Let It Snow," they continued the creative partnership through the music videos for II’s "I’ll Make Love To You," "Thank You" and "On Bended Knee," the latter of which saw the bandmembers getting to act alongside their hand-pick childhood crushes.
Wanya Morris: We each got to request our own partners for the "On Bended Knee" music video and I chose Lark Voorhies from Saved By The Bell. We were guys, so we were all trying to holler at them all day. I’m not going to lie, it was really cool and really fun getting to shoot that video.
Nathan Morris: We all got to pick a couple names of who we wanted them to reach out to and luckily I got my first pick. I choose Kim Fields because I was a big fan of Facts Of Life. At the time, I was in a relationship and we ended up having a big fight about me being in the video. It was great though. We shot it in New Orleans and I think it was a three-day shoot. Between that one and "Water Runs Dry," those are my two favorites music videos that we’ve ever done.
As the trajectory of the band's career continued to skyrocket on the back of II, the following year found the vocal giants collaborating on a trio of top-tier releases: Michael Jackson’s HIStory, LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith, and Mariah Carey’s Daydream. Their duet with Carey, the massively popular "One Sweet Day," hit number one on December 2, 1995 and firmly reigned there until March 23, 1996. Its astounding 16-week stay not only marked the third time that Boyz II Men had tied or broken the record for longest-running number one single, but it was also strong enough to remain as a record all the way up until earlier this year when Lil Nas X’s surprise smash "Old Town Road" landed at number one for a combined 19 weeks (the first week as a solo artist and then 18 weeks with the Billy Ray Cyrus version).
Nathan Morris: The Lil Nas X thing is surprising because we’re in this fast food entertainment society where you need something new every four seconds. You wouldn’t think that something would stick around that long, but the good songs do. There have been some other really great songs in the last few years that I thought should’ve broken the record, but "Old Town Road" was the one to do it.
Wanya Morris: I think it helps that there’s not so much of a "big stage" competition nowadays. Everyone is more of an individual. Plus, there are more things out today that help your music get heard. We didn't have Instagram. The internet was just a baby back then. If we wanted to reach a million people, we had to go on the road and touch a million people. Nowadays, people can just click a button and reach all of their social media followers at once, who in turn can reach all of their followers, and you can quickly get in a zone that’ll start promoting you to people who don’t know who you are.
The part about the Lil Nas X thing that makes sense to me is that it’s a black man singing country music, it sparked some controversy because they didn’t want to let him in, then the LGBTQ community embraced it towards the end and it really became a phenomenon. It’s a good song but it became a huge record because it was relatable. Everybody could sing it, everybody could dance to it, and it became one of those things that allowed people to hear and experience something new.
Nathan Morris: It’s a weird time. Music is changing so fast. You don’t have those multi-year cycles of popularity. Audience tastes seem to change every month. For us, it’s really nice to have three of the top five records for longevity at number one, but we understand that records are made to be broken. We broke the records of Elvis and The Beatles, so we totally get it.