The four austere, antiquated microphones on the cover of Boyz II Men's fourth CD hint at the group's approach on this album, a venture into independent songwriting and producing that sees it pursuing the maturation process its name suggests. Although arguably the most influential male quartet of the '90s, Boyz II Men has worked under such star producers as Michael Bivins, Babyface, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who crafted their music and often penned the lyrics. Now Nathan, Michael, Shawn, and Wayna are aiming for a more streamlined, personalized sound. Although it still uses a few guest producers, the group's most ornate tunes, such as the delightfully busy "Step On It" and the somewhat lewd electronica-flavored "Bounce, Shake, Move, Swing," are its own creations. The sparse arrangements Boyz II Men favors on the rest of the tracks place great emphasis on the vocals, which are refreshingly free of the group's trademark histrionics. Mindful of the Latin pop moment, the Boyz employ breezy Spanish guitar on several occasions, enhancing the supple playfulness found throughout this collection.
Lyrically, the album also seems very personal and focused. Starting with the giddy meditation on the diversity of attraction, "Beautiful Women," the album quickly slips into a heartbroken cynicism, delivered most forcefully with the exasperated "Good Guy." With two platonic pleas ("Pass You By" and "Know What You Want") for women to not sell themselves short as the singers have done, the album works its way to a renewed sense of compassion. Perhaps the most intriguing effort to restore faith is "I Do," a jubilant celebration of wedding vows that manages to drive home just how much is at stake in this commitment.
Despite its sometimes poignant lyrics on such topics, this CD might be a little too lightweight to be called great. Nonetheless, Boyz II Men deserves accolades not only for ushering in a new era in pop radio but also for continuing to push the male vocal group subgenre to new levels of thoughtfulness and sophistication.