It was in the spring of 1995 that I had first heard of Boyz II Men or their album II. I was in second grade, and my family had just moved from Hobart, Indiana to nearby Valparaiso. It was far enough to lose contact with all of my friends but close enough that my mother could drive me to school on her way to work in Merrillville to let me finish out the year.
She drove a 1993 Ford Festiva we had named “The Great Bluedini” despite the color being closer to turquoise. It was a tiny car, but I thought it was the coolest vehicle I’d ever seen.
Each morning, we’d leave extra early and drive to Hobart. Sometimes we were early and we would spend a few minutes at Lake George counting birds or just talking about what I was doing in school lately. It was the drive, which I learned as an adult was about 22-25 minutes, that was particularly special. My mom had a few cassette tapes that we’d cycle through of varying genres: a few I’ve lost to time, Garth Brooks’ In Pieces and of course II.
The opening sounds of the album are so of their time. Beat-boxing, a dubbed cut of “I like this” being rapped over just before the beat and opening verse drop in. The doo-wop harmonies under Wanya Morris’s voice were something I had never heard.
My range of influence didn’t give me many opportunities to discover rap, hip-hop, or R&B. My mom listened to oldies and contemporary pop radio, but by the time ’95 came around, my frame of reference was nowhere near the sounds of II.
By the close of 1994, the songs of II had already re-written music history. The lead single, “I’ll Make Love To You”, hit number one the week of August 27 and didn’t relent until December 3rd when it was replaced by the follow up single, “On Bended Knee”. This made Boyz II Men just the third artist in history to replace themselves atop the Hot 100 Charts, after Elvis Presley and The Beatles. The 14-week residency of “I’ll Make Love To You” tied Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for the record for longest time atop the chart- a record they would break just two years later.
The album was released on August 30, 1994, and ascended to #1 on the Billboard chart within three weeks, supplanting The Lion King Soundtrack that had held the spot for two full months. In the pre-digital age of cassettes and compact discs, units sold were king, which made II‘s chart performance rather unique. After two weeks, it was overtaken by Eric Clapton’s blues album From the Cradle, only to take it back a week later. The following week, R.E.M.’s Monster took the top spot, only for II to again outsell everything else for one more week. The five weeks at the top were a part of 99 weeks on the Billboard album chart. In total, II moved over 12 million units, becoming the best selling album of 1995 that wasn’t a greatest hits collection.
My favorite song became “I’ll Make Love To You”. I was eight years old and had pretty much no idea what that meant. I knew sex was a thing, but I was still a few years off from really understanding the message of the song. It was the melody, the harmonies, and the intensity of the singers voices that won me over. My mom had to realize that I didn’t know what “making love” meant, since I almost always asked to rewind the tape so we could listen to it again, hoping beyond hope that we wouldn’t reach the school before the song ended.
Tracks like “On Bended Knee”, “Water Runs Dry”, and their cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” were constant repeats as well. This became our daily routine for the remainder of the school year. Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m thankful you didn’t insist on changing tapes.
On the song “All Around The World”, the group sings the names of cities they had played while on tour. All of the expected world capitols and then several major locations in the USA. Then at the end they mention “Hammond, Indiana, too”. Hammond wasn’t too far from where I grew up, and having somewhere near my hometown mentioned alongside Paris, Rome, New York and Japan made me feel relevant and cool. My mom and I would make a point to sing that part with a little extra gusto.
Songs like “Vibin'” and “U Know” became the soundtrack to my summer. I didn’t know anyone in my new town yet, so all I did was shoot hoops on the garage-mounted backboard and listen to the radio or whatever cassettes I could find around the house. I had used my dad’s two-tape stereo to dub a copy of the album. By the start of third grade, I knew every word.
Boyz II Men never found success like II again, and a mixture of record label problems, in-fighting, and health concerns led to a rocky turn of the century. Despite album sales not being world-changing, their collaborative single with Mariah Carey, “One Sweet Day”, became the longest-lasting number one single in history until just this year, when streaming figures and a few remixes gave Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus the title with “Old Town Road”. They still tour and record to this day, nearly three decades into their career.
II was a cornerstone album of my youth. I would grow up and get into Green Day (Dookie), Linkin Park (Hybrid Theory), and Queens of the Stone Age (Songs for the Deaf), but I kept coming back to that album. Years of peer influence and lack of exposure had driven my taste away from their post-II career.
What makes a great album truly timeless isn’t the figures it sells or elaborate music videos, though those are worth your time, trust me. Pop music is anchored by the memories we build around it. Think back to your youth. There’s surely some album that strikes a chord and gives you warm memories. Maybe its The Lion King Soundtrack. Maybe its something that came out at a totally different time. Maybe it’s II.
I treasure those drives with my mother as I do in the present day singing “On Bended Knee” in the kitchen with my wife while we cook. Tapes became CD’s became MP3s became streams, and here I am, still in love with this album a quarter century later.