The ‘90s were a boom time for slow-jamming, open-shirted male R&B groups and dreamboat boy bands in matching outfits. Boyz II Men were pioneers on both fronts. With its 1991 debut, the Philly foursome offered a sneak peek at what pop music was going to sound like for the next decade.
Released 25 years ago today, on Valentine’s Day, 1991, Cooleyhighharmony is not a song-for-song triumph. The two essential tracks are also the two singles everyone knows: “Motownphilly” and “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” One is four minutes of hyped-up self-mythologizing; the other is an a cappella cover of a ‘70s R&B hit.
Together, they told fans everything they needed to know about who these guys were and where they were going.
Formed in 1988 at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Boyz II Men comprised four classically trained vocalists (Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris, and Michael McCary) looking to bring old-school R&B and doo-wop into the hip-hop age. They were great fans of New Edition, and one night in ’89, they made it backstage and auditioned for Michael Bivins, who was beginning to dabble in artist development. Biv signed on as manager, got them a deal with Motown, and helped them pick out those preppy shorts and cardigans seen in their early videos.
Bivins was also a member of Bell Biv Devoe, and although he left the album’s nuts-and-bolts production to Dallas Austin, who’d later helm era-defining hits by TLC, Cooleyhighharmony veers periodically into BBD-style New Jack Swing. The sound hasn’t aged especially well, and even then, it didn’t really suit Boyz II Men. With these guys, the clean-cut thing was no act. They were four supremely talented, hard-working, god-loving young men whose strengths lay in timeless ballads, not trendy crossover dance records.
“Not everybody in the black community likes raunchy music or artists with a hard-core street image,” Stockman told the L.A. Times in 1993, responding to a question about whether Boyz II Men’s “wholesome image” had cost them black fans. “We feel we’re accepted by the people in the black community who like this kind of music. Kids who are into rap or some hard-core music probably wouldn’t like our ballads. But our style suits our music. If we behaved like some of the hard-core rappers, people might not accept us.”
The nice-guy thing paid off. Cooleyhighharmony quickly went multi-platinum and reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200. The following year, it was reissued to include “End of the Road,” a tune from the Boomerang soundtrack that gave Boyz II Men the first of its four No. 1 singles. As the decade progressed, the band shed its Carlton Banks gear, ditched the New Jack Swing thing, and dominated the charts with ballads like “I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee.” While 1994’s II or even 2001’s Legacy: The Greatest Hits Collection are arguably stronger front-to-back listens, Cooleyhighharmony offers a whiff of ’91 nearly as potent as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Read on for a track-by-track review.
“Please Don’t Go Away”: The Boyz begin the first song on their first album with one of the Michael McCary wounded-loverman spoken-word bits that would become their trademark. “Hey baby, I’m sorry,” the bass singer says, sounding way older than 19. “I never meant to hurt you.” That’s basically the song — the next four minutes add impeccable harmonies, Dallas Austin synths, and lots more bended-knee pleading.
“Lonely Heart”: McCary again starts things off, this time playing a guy getting dumped in a rainstorm. From there, this ballad only grows more dramatic, as synth strings build behind the four voices, creating an overheated soap opera feel.
“This Is My Heart”: After a couple of downers, Austin programs a livelier beat, and the Boyz get down to “loving and kissing and holding you tight.” At around 2:30, as the Spanish guitar that’s been rippling along in the background moves to the fore, McCary gets another dope monologue: “Welcome this man, baby. Because I’m giving. My heart. To you.”
“Uhh Ahh”: The tender smooching of the previous track escalates into some serious lovemaking, complete with a 10-to-1 countdown-to-climax vocal intro later sampled by Beyonce. Co-written by Bivins, this is Boyz II Men delivering a tamer version of the sweaty slow jams that groups like Jodeci would do way more convincingly.
“It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”: For all the talk of Boys II Men making doo-wop for the hip-hop age, it was this gut-punching a cappella cover of G.C. Cameron’s 1975 R&B hit that gave the group its highest-charting single on this album. On the strength of the fellas’ pristine, wistful performance, the tune reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 and soundtracked just about every graduation ceremony held in 1991.
“Motownphilly”: It’s the Boyz II Men creation story, set to a New Jack Swing beat and helped along by shrill synth horns, instantly dated orchestra hits, and a couple of Michael Bivins raps. As the album’s lead single, “Motownphilly” was meant to give the back-story and showcase the group’s vocal chops, which is why the best line goes a little something like this: “Doom doom doom da da, doom doom doom da da / Da di da di da da, da da, daa daa daa.”
“Under Pressure”: “Hey, why don’t we do something for the jeeps?” the Boyz ask themselves at the beginning of the track, after a few bars of old-school street-corner serenading. From there, “Under Pressure” becomes “Motownphilly” minus the autobiography. Toss in a horn-dog rap, and this becomes a BBD track. Absent that, it’s another example of the quartet’s genuineness shining through. They sound way more bummed than Biv and his crew do on “Poison.”
“Sympin’”: Speaking of “Poison,” the machine-gun drum roll from that 1990 smash turns up here, alongside samples from two JBs: James Brown and James Bond. Not that the Boyz are feeling like sex machines or secret agents. They spend this lively track groveling at their ladies’ feet.
“Little Things”: The album closes with two songs written and produced by Troy Taylor, a newcomer who’d signed with Motown before his 21st birthday. The first, “Little Things,” puts big drum snap behind smooth vocals and lyrics about settling for love and companionship over diamond rings. Amid some fairly clichéd lines, Taylor gives the group one real gem: “Don’t expect life to be perfect / It don’t come with static cling.” If only loving were more like laundry.
“Your Love”: The album had to end on a tender note, and Taylor helps bring it home by giving the band this silky slow jam. “Your love is aggressive but smooth / Take me flat on my face,” they sing, essentially describing their aesthetic one last time.