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POP MUSIC

Cycling Back

Not long ago, Boyz II Men was one of hottest groups; then a slump, a sabbatical and, now, a new album.

September 21, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes the forerunners have to take a back seat to their progeny. That's the situation Boyz II Men--Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris, Michael McCary, and Wanya Morris--found themselves in during the late '90s, when the incipient boy band movement began its assault on the pop landscape.

By 1999, this vocal quartet, one of the biggest-selling R&B outfits of all time, was playing to half-full arenas while younger fans nursed newfound crushes on the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync--groups that appropriated Boyz II Men's rich, multi-part harmonies and tenderhearted rhapsodizing.

It was a bitter pill, even if the group's four albums have sold close to 30 million copies combined--some 12 million for 1994's "II' alone, thanks to such monster hits as "I'll Make Love to You" and "On Bended Knee."

But who wants to be a prince when you've already breathed the rarefied air of a king?

"Of course, it bothers you," says Stockman, when asked about the group's shift of fortunes. "But we don't consider ourselves exempt from the ups and downs of this business. The industry works in cycles. It's all about timing."

Boyz II Men now hope the time is right for a comeback. The band's new album, "Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya," is an attempt not only to introduce the Boyz to a new generation of fans, but also to reclaim the old ones. The collection entered the national sales chart this week at No. 4. The group opens for Luther Vandross tonight at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

"When we first came out, 'boy band' was never a description for us," Stockman says. "It was a situation where we were young kids singing mature music. We sounded older than we were."

Sticking

to Its Guns

According Dan Kieley, program director at Los Angeles' leading pop station, KIIS-FM (102.7), Boyz II Men's fortunes are tied to its material. "Clive Davis once said, 'Once a name, always a threat,' and if Boyz II Men has great songs, they'll definitely be OK," says Kieley. "It may be good for younger fans not to have a preconceived notion of what they've done. They're still great talents, and that's what it comes down to."

Aside from a few sonic upgrades, the quartet is sticking to its guns on the new album, proffering the kind of satin-sheets balladry and mid-tempo dance numbers that turned them into pop phenoms. "I don't think we've changed too much," says Stockman. "We still sing about love and relationships. What people may accept today they might not accept tomorrow, but as fans get older they come back around."

Stockman is sanguine about the success of such teen dreams as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.

"A lot of these groups can really sing," he says. "We're unanimously fans of 'N Sync. They can do the harmonies. But the hysteria's gonna die down at some point, and these bands will have to deal with that situation."

Evolution

of the Band

Granted, failure is relative for Boyz II Men. Its 1997 album, "Evolution," was its poorest-selling studio album of original material, but it still sold more than 3 million CDs. Yet the pop culture currents were clearly shifting, and that was enough for the band to take a hiatus and reassess its role as velvet-throated Lotharios.

"We needed to take a few months off, go on vacation, do normal things," says Stockman. " 'Evolution' just didn't live up to our expectations."

The band followed individual pursuits. McCary, 27, got married and launched a sports management firm; Morris, 26, a converted Black Israelite, delved into spirituality and started a music production company, while Stockman, 27, started a film production company called Triess, whose first production, "17 Again," will be seen on Showtime in December. Nathan Morris, 28, (no relation to Wanya) ran the business of Boyz II Men when they switched record labels, going from Motown to Universal for the new album.

Unlike the current crop of peach-fuzz singing groups, Boyz II Men has been a relatively self-sufficient entity since the four members met at the Philadelphia School for the Performing Arts and scored a label contract after auditioning for New Edition's Michael Bivins in 1992.

"We weren't manufactured," says Stockman. "We came up with the band name. We were a real band."

The band wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 songs for "Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya," including the first single, "Pass You By" (written solely by Stockman). But the question remains: Will radio programmers, many of whom are notorious for their short memories, give the new Boyz II Men record a fighting chance?

"We definitely enjoy the stardom and the fame and we have fun with it," says Stockman. "But we keep things in perspective. We don't believe the hype too much. It comes and it goes, but it doesn't determine your worth."

BE THERE

Boyz II Men, with Luther Vandross, today at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 8 p.m. $25.25 to $85.85. (949) 855-2863.

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