Boyz II Men always has straddled two generations: Twenty years ago, the Grammy-winning teenage quartet crooned with the passion of old-school swooners. Dressed in urban-preppy ice-blue jeans and letter jackets, the young boys of R&B kept their sounds fresh with a new jack swing baseline.
These days Boyz II Men is a trio: Wanya Morris, Nathan Morris (no relation) and Shawn Stockman. (Former baritone Michael McCrary has been in a running dispute with the group.) They are the older cats in a cyber-driven industry dominated by electronic beats. They still sing love songs with voices like well-tuned instruments, but instead of infusing up-tempo tracks with hip-hop, the group is embracing technology: Think Boyz II Men Facebook page and app.
Their most grown-up move, however, is to restructure their business, new millennium-style. Boyz II Men's latest project, "Twenty," released at the end of October, is a product of their own label, MSM (Morris, Stockman, Morris). The two CDS are a compilation of classic hits, such as "End of the Road" and "I'll Make Love To You," plus 12 new songs, including the group's latest single, "More
Than You'll Ever Know," a duo with the industry's best comeback, Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson.
Boyz II Men own the rights to all of the new music, so after they pay for marketing and CD manufacture, they stand to make a pretty penny on this 10th album.
"We've made money, but we've never been able to possibly make this much," said Stockman, the group's tenor and a judge on NBC's a cappella reality show, "The Sing-Off." "If all goes well," he said, "it could be a very good year."
Financially speaking, maybe, but it's a long shot that Boyz II Men will match their early 1990s peak (four Grammys and 60 million albums sold worldwide). They remain one of the best-selling R&B groups in history -- the best, they claim.
"More Than You'll Ever Know" has sold more than 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Boyz II Men are in an interesting place," said James Peterson, director of Africana studies and a hip-hop scholar at Lehigh University. Peterson credits Boyz II Men with bringing a new element of soul unseen before in hip-hop music.
"They are not old enough to command the respect of, say, a Four Tops, but they don't have the same relevance of a Trey Songz, either. It will be interesting to see what comes next for them."
Stockman and the two Morrises are all in their late 30s, and all have children. The Morrises live in the Philly area, while Stockman lives in California, partly to be close to the show and partly to work on a few television film collaborations he has in the pipeline.
The group still performs old standards together. They also do casinos, and like many acts from their generation, they take part in old-school concerts. But their real bread and butter comes from performances in Europe.
"Europe is the reason we can still feed our families," Stockman said. "It's their mentality: When they love you over there, they love you forever. The United States is a little bit more fickle."