Boyz II Men have always held a special place in my heart. As a child, I was smitten with their vocal harmonies and soulful vocalization. I never knew it at the time, but I was a student of r&b long before I was a student of rock, though I’ve never considered myself a serious admirer of the genre. There have been a been few artists though that have slipped through the cracks. Craig David was a favorite of mine during high school, his album Born to Do It was a staple of my portable CD player, to the point where I can still recall his music 16 years later.
As crazy as it sounds though, r&b hasn’t been the same to me since the mid-90s. I’m definitely biased as I write this, but there’s just a sound from that era that strokes my ears. The sound is simple and stripped down, the marriage of studio production and elegance, a perfected crispness that sadly has gone the way in favor of heavy bass and crowded instrumentation.
Listen to the music coming out that period between 1985 to 1995. To me, it begins with the release of Whitney Houston’s self-titled album, though I cite my own discovery of it with “Somewhere Out There” by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, a song so delicate and powerful but stripped of unnecessary production. There’s just simple bell-like sounds from a synth, a simple snare beat, and string section. And it all swells into an outburst of soaring vocals. It could have started earlier but to my ears and recollection this is was the initiation. The slickness of the sound would later come to be embraced by Disney, a perfect example being “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
Part of the allure of this sound is undoubtedly derived from Broadway, and it’s move to synth and vocal powered expression of feeling. Listen to “Any Dream Will Do,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s schlocky Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and you can hear the simplicity of the production and masterful vocalization of Donny Osmond and children’s choir. It’s these theatrical elements that seem to have seeped over into the pop music and more specifically r&b.
Eventually, this sound would be perfected with Mariah Carey in her powerful “Vision of Love”, released in 1990. Seeping through the song is a traditional melody that is carried by a bluesy bass line and studio produced accompaniment that shows traces of Webber’s musicals from the early 80s. But all of this takes a backseat to Carey’s amazing vocals and her mastering of the whistle register. Whitney Houston is easily the face of female r&b from the 80s, but Carey would come to absolutely dominate the 90s. Vocals have always been the driving force of r&b, but Carey’s instrument had taken the sound to a whole new level.
Not every r&b act would take on such impressive vocals, but the sound was there. For every En Vogue, there was a Toni Braxton, and though this stream of vocal artists was one group who took everything wonderful about the production and harmonies of r&b and perfected the very essence of 90s r&b.
Boyz II Men were the giants of that era, on the same level of Carey, to the point where the two inevitably crossed over and released the longest running Billboard Top 100 hit “One Sweet Day”. With just two best selling albums, they had claimed a slew of #1 hits, each to critical acclaim. A marriage of r&b and Motown era Acappella, their sound was the crystallization of early 90s r&b, a crispness of soul and clean production that hasn’t been matched since.
Listening through their oeuvre, it’s hard to pick one song to serve as the ultimate representation of sonic perfection from that era. Just look at this list: “End of the Road”; “I’ll Make Love to You”; “On Bended Knee”; “One Sweet Day”. With just a few hits you start to realize they were the early 90s pop landscape, dominating the charts and airwaves. But there is one song that I recall from childhood that completely captured my emotions, a song full of passion that I was clearly drawn to.
“Water Runs Dry”, a song expertly crafted of simplicity and beauty is the stuff of a lover’s dream, a perfection of classical and modern, all set to the brush of a jazz-styled snare. It’s a sound that always dominates my attention, something I’ve explained in greater detail of my review of the hit song “Apologize” by OneRepublic.
There’s an immediate sense of intimacy and delicate emotions, carried by the dramatization of the orchestra. If you’ll listen closely, there’s an ever so slight pause before the strings are introduced in long strokes, instead of opening with the plucking of a chord on an acoustic guitar. It’s an old trick, a famous example being the opening of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40”. Employed here, the accompaniment hooks the listener in its lush yet sorrowful arrangement. The sound itself clearly has traces of that early Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway sound, but steers way clear of schlock and into romanticism, to the point where I honestly consider it classical music.
What really makes this song special is the elegance and reflect of clarity of the production with the with the theme of purity in water. There’s the haunting presence of the lyrics, urging a couple to go “right to where the water runs dry”. Its essence is freeing from the burden of broken love and echoes the rebirth that is traditionally signified with imagery of baptism by water. Combine this lyricism with the image of four men dress in snow white clothing against an equally snow-white background from the music video and the pureness of the song’s lyrics is cemented in your mind.
Imagine how such elegance must have struck a 9-year-old boy and it’s no wonder I admirer this era of music so much. It’s a lovely image, one powerful enough for me to beg my mom to take me to the CD store and buy the album’s cassette tape. I must have played the shit out of that tape because relistening to the band’s magnum opus II on which this track was released I can recall every beat and jam as if this was 95. Coincidentally, I probably haven’t listened to that album since 95. It’s that good.
How odd I mention all of this without even touching on the band’s actual forte, the vocals. Their harmonies chill the bone while being accentuated by the “bums” of Michael McCary expressionate bass. It was a choir to these youthful ears, made more powerful by how well the vocals create an almost harmonic effect with the strings of the orchestra. What is essentially a breakup song is simply heart wrenching in its beauty and sorrow. Babyface, the song’s writer and producer, is perhaps the ultimate early 90s r&b musician, and his stamp on this production will no doubt prove to be the defining song of not only Boyz II Men but the genre as a whole.
Unfortunately, everything that followed proved to be a case of diminishing returns, including the output from the band. There would be a record label dispute and the release of their third album Evolution that would score a top 10 hit but prove a letdown. As for the r&b, hip-hop eventually carried the baton, to the point where Mariah Carey full-on embraced the genre and would prove to be a far more produced. This isn’t to disparage rap, but the marriage of soul and classical would be distorted into the bling and narcissism that was so entrenched in gangster rap. That era would be short-lived, however, because of the breakout success of the earnest and soulful Kanye West, who came onto the scene in the early 2000s and paved the way for more r&b flavored hip-hop with his groundbreaking album 808s and Heartbreak.
I’m hopeful we’re seeing the rise in the renewal of the sound of that era with the work of such r&b artists as Drake and even rap artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Their capture of a new rap and soul sound was displayed in full force in “Poetic Justice”, a song, while technically rap, might as be considered r&b. I honestly hope to think this might be the new ear of r&b, a truly magnificent one.But that is for a future generation to decide.
Looking back to the music of my childhood, I can fondly kick back and ride the wave of familiarity. One day a fresh eared child will marvel at that moment in time, much the way I marvel at Motown. And so it is.