Boyz II Men have been making music for more than two decades, but that hasn’t made them complacent — they’re continually looking for new ways to reinvent their sound. Their residency in Las Vegas recently earned them the title of Musical Artist of the Year at the Casino Entertainment Awards, and their latest album, Collide, finds the group exploring new musical avenues. Billboard caught up with Nathan Morris to discuss Collide and the group’s time in Vegas.
For your new album, Collide, you tried a different approach: no ballads. Why?
I don’t think we specifically decided to try to avoid the ballads, I think we just wound up finishing the record and realized that there weren’t any on there. I mean we definitely tried to make songs that were not the traditional Boyz II Men songs, but we were not trying to exclude ballads, it just happened to go that way.
What inspired you when you were writing these songs?
We decided to not be involved in the writing or the producing of the record. We just let people bring us songs that we like. We didn’t want to think too hard on it; we didn’t want to come up with a conceptual album where this song meant this to that song and all that stuff that people have done years ago. We got a bunch of great songs, they sound great to us, they felt great to us, and we just went in and record them.
Do you have to approach a song differently if you didn’t write it?
It’s hard to say. It all depends on the producer and the songwriter. Sometimes they’ll give you a song, then they’ll want you to add your embellishments to it and be the artist that you are. You’ll get some producers who want the song exactly the way they did it. So really it all depends on them. For the most part we just approach it the way we do and how we think it should be, but it all depends on what the producer wants.
Were there ever moments where you really wanted a song but another one of the guys was like, “Eh, I’m not feeling it”?
We go through that, but the thing that makes this album work is we agreed from the beginning that everybody didn’t agree on liking a song then we weren’t gonna do it. Because it was important — not just to the project, but to the group — that everybody enjoyed recording the record and enjoyed the songs we were singing.
Is it ever hard now that you’re doing this Vegas residency to still find time to record?
The recording process was extremely difficult to do considering we were in Vegas every weekend. We had to do some recording there, we did some in L.A. — wherever we were and we had a free moment, it didn’t even matter what city it was in, we would jump in the studio and just try to get the record done. We had a lot of the songs done early, about seven or eight songs, and then we kind of hit a wall as far as finding good songs. So we were sitting for about nine months before we found the last few songs we wanted to tie in to the rest of the record.
Which were the last ones that you added?
“Believe Us” came later. “Me Myself and I” came later. What else? “As Long As I’m With You” came later, “Don’t Stop” came later. A lot of them came on the back end.
Do you listen to much current R&B?
What has allowed Boyz II Men to outlast so many other groups?
I think it starts with the identity and the branding of the group. People know when they hear Boyz II Men there’s a certain standard of what they’re gonna hear and what the group entails. And I think the fact that 23 years later we’ve been able to hold on through the good times and the bad times. People look at that as a feat — it’s been very difficult to do. The only reason we’ve been able to do it is because we love the music the same way we loved it 23 years ago. And that’s the key of it all.
How did you first get your Vegas residency going?
We actually had done a few shows during the holiday season at the Flamingo a few years back. It was really bad timing — Vegas during the holiday season, nobody really comes. It was the only shot that we had to get ourselves in the marketplace and get our feet wet and see what we were capable of doing. Even though it was a bad time the tickets did pretty well, so we were kind of excited about that. Two years later we got some offers from a couple different hotels about coming out and trying a residency. When you’ve been doing it for 23 years, you get to a point where you just do what you feel, and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. We jumped out there at a bad time and it worked out for us and it led to us being in a residency, which started last March.
Congratulations — you received the Vegas Entertainer of the Year honors.
How does that feel?
It’s a good thing. When you’re going to Vegas, our show is pure music and pure heartfelt — there’s not a lot of trapeze artists and light rigs and all that craziness. When you’re going up against all that stuff in Las Vegas you would never expect to win an award like that, but if you use the word entertainer that’s definitely something we take pride in.
An edited version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.