In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Nobody really says “make love” anymore — or, if they do, then they aren’t saying it to me. The term always seemed a bit fusty and old-fashioned — a genteel euphemism for an activity that’s generally not considered all that genteel. There’s a certain politeness to “make love.” If an activity involves love, then that activity seems somehow more pure and ethical than it might otherwise. Those fusty, old-fashioned, polite qualities are what made the term “make love” so perfect for Boyz II Men.
Boyz II Men were the biggest male R&B stars of the ’90s, a time when R&B singers in general — male ones in particular — were exceptionally horny. That horniness had its context. R&B singers had always been horny, just as singers in practically every genre had always been horny. The ’70s saw the emergence of the slow jam, the R&B ballad specifically designed for sex. The term “slow jam” didn’t enter the lexicon until 1983, but the term described a slow, aching, romantic style of balladry that had existed for a lot longer. You can trace slow-jam evolution through Marvin Gaye and Philly soul and quiet storm, and the style arguably reached its commercial apex in the ’90s, as R&B dominated the pop charts and as it became more socially accepted to discuss sex openly.
The male R&B singers of the ’90s might’ve been on top of the charts, but they were also dealing with the existential threat of rap music, which had grown increasingly ribald and increasingly popular at the same time. As Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg reshaped the sound and attitude of pop music, R&B singers had to work harder to project coolness, toughness, and masculinity. One way to do that was to sing endlessly about sex. That’s the approach that took Silk and R. Kelly to #1, and it also proved lucrative for groups like Jodeci and H-Town. Boyz II Men were bigger than any of those artists, but they were still new on the scene, and they needed to compete. They needed a sex song.
Boyz II Men had come up with the early-’90s new jack swing wave, and they’d sold 9 million copies of their 1991 debut album Cooleyhighharmony. They followed that album with the absurdly huge Boomerang-soundtrack ballad “End Of The Road,” a song that held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for longer than any single that had ever come before. Rookie runs simply don’t get bigger than that. Boyz II Men felt intense pressure to follow all that success, and maybe that’s why their second album was a holiday LP that didn’t feature any singles. (1993’s Christmas Interpretations still went double platinum.) Maybe that’s why they also led off their proper Cooleyhighharmony follow-up with a sexed-up slow jam.
But Boyz II Men weren’t ready to go all the way horny. Maybe they could’ve done like H-Town and sung about knockin’ boots, but that would’ve required them to change their whole persona. Boyz II Men had put themselves out into the world as fresh-faced, clean-cut, approachable young men. “End Of The Road” was state-of-the-art early-’90s R&B, but it also sounded like a flashback to the Philly soul era. If Boyz II Men were going to sing a sex song, then that sex song would also have to project the same qualities that brought Boyz II Men to the dance. Maybe that’s how we got “I’ll Make Love To You.” And maybe that precise calibration — nailing the sound of the moment without imperiling the group’s throwback appeal — is how “I’ll Make Love To You” set up shop at #1, occupying the top of the Hot 100 for even longer than “End Of The Road” had done.
Shortly before recording their 1994 album II, Boyz II Men split away from Michael Bivins, the New Edition/Bel Biv DeVoe member who’d discovered them and who’d managed their early career. According to some reports, the group wanted to record the whole album with Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson, the songwriting and production team known as Tim & Bob. But Tim & Bob, proteges of Boyz II Men’s Cooleyhighharmony collaborator Dallas Austin, had never made a big hit, and the label people at Motown didn’t want to entrust an album this important to an unproven team. Once again, then, Boyz II Men went to work with the man who literally coined the term “slow jam.”
In 1983, when he was still part of the band known as the Deele, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds co-wrote the Midnight Star album-track ballad “Slow Jam,” the song that gave that whole sound its name. (Midnight Star’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Operator,” peaked at #18.) Soon enough, Babyface and his Deele bandmate LA Reid became in-demand producers and songwriters. Babyface already worked with Boyz II Men; he’d co-written and co-produced “End Of The Road.” By 1994, Babyface was probably at his peak. Earlier that summer, he’d notched his highest-charting single as a solo artist, getting up to #4 with “When Can I See You.” (It’s an 8.)
Babyface wrote and produced “I’ll Make Love To You” on his own, without any assistance from regular collaborator LA Reid. When Boyz II Men first heard “I’ll Make Love To You,” they didn’t want to record the song since they thought it sounded too much like “End Of The Road.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, group member Nathan Morris talks about how Boyz II Men were reluctant to repeat themselves: “Not that [‘I’ll Make Love To You’] wasn’t a great song, just that we didn’t want our fans to get bored. We wanted to give them something different. But the record company talked us into doing it, and thank God it worked.”
“I’ll Make Love To You” does sound a whole lot like “End Of The Road.” They’re both slow, stately ballads with that ’90s digital sheen all over them. On both songs, the singers in Boyz II Men trade off lead vocals. On their solos, they go off on twisty and physically demanding melismatic vocal runs before coming back together to harmonize on the grand, simple, catchy chorus. Both songs are all about romantic pleading, even though the subject matter is different. On “End Of The Road,” the narrator wants to get back with an ex after a breakup. With “I’ll Make Love To You,” the narrator has something a little more simple in mind.
It’s easy to make jokes about Babyface’s “I’ll Make Love To You” lyrics. They’re legitimately funny, and I wonder how intentional that was. In isolation, the first lines of the chorus — “I’ll make love to you, like you want me to” — could be downright creepy. When all four of the singers go into passionate gospel overdrive, “I’ll Make Love To You” trips off into different dimensions of overwrought insanity. These guys sound like they’re very serious about having sex, an activity that’s generally considered fun. The song also goes over-the-top in its pursuit of chivalry. Most ’90s R&B singers sang about sex as a hunger, an urge that can’t be ignored. On “I’ll Make Love To You,” Boyz II Men sing about sex more as an expression of devotion, a chance to prove that you’re willing to do whatever your partner wants.
The “I’ll Make Love To You” lyrics go crazy with the romance-novel imagery: candles, wine, fire in the fireplace, clothes thrown on the floor. On the second verse, Wanya Morris promises patience and endurance: “Girl, relax, let’s go slow/ I ain’t got nowhere to go/ I’m just gonna concentrate on you/ Girl, are you ready? It’s gonna be a long night.” These guys aren’t singing about what they want. Instead, all they want to do is “submit to your demands.” They never get too specific about what those demands might be, and that restraint keeps “I’ll Make Love To You” from ever achieving freakiness — beyond, of course, the inherent freakiness of four guys all singing about sex together, possibly addressing the same woman.
Musically, “I’ll Make Love To You” hits nothing but familiar notes. Babyface clearly understands the power of formula. Playing keyboards and programming the drum machine, Babyface keeps “I’ll Make Love To You” slow and slick. The snare-taps have just the right amount of echo, and the fake strings swell up exactly when you expect. I like the horns that come in near the end, but the whole production remains rote and predictable.
The members of Boyz II Men sing the hell out of “I’ll Make Love To You.” On their solos, they’re all sensitive and assured. The lyrics don’t really have stakes, but there’s urgency in those voices. Those four voices aren’t too clean; there’s a bit of rasp in all of them. On the chorus, the harmonies are rich and layered; I especially like what bass singer Michael McCary, the one guy who doesn’t get a solo, does on the hook. His murmurs are essentially part of the rhythm section, and they make the track richer. But all four singers are pros, and they clearly don’t hear the song as being ridiculous. If anything, their straight-faced theatrical sincerity just makes the song funnier.
So does the video. Director Lionel C. Martin, who’d already made Silk’s “Freak Me” video and who would later helm the movie How To Be A Player, lays out this whole scene. A woman is getting a burglar alarm installed in her house, and she tries to flirt with the guy who installed it, but he’s too businesslike. Later on, she thinks about calling him, but she holds back, giving herself some kind of sensual bubble bath instead. But he’s into her, too, so he writes her a love letter. He doesn’t actually write it, though. He just gets out his Boyz II Men CD booklet and copies down the “I’ll Make Love To You” lyrics. Not very creative!
The guy delivers the letter to the house, and the lady reads it by firelight. She seems to like what she reads, though the video ends before any actual lovemaking happens. (The guy in the video is Duane Martin, a former Knicks benchwarmer who’d been in White Men Can’t Jump and Above The Rim and who’d later star in Real Husbands Of Hollywood.) All the while, the members of Boyz II Men appear, rocking different outfits and singing “I’ll Make Love To You” to nobody in particular. One of their looks — all four guys in all-white outfits, with sunglasses and gold jewelry — stands as one of the defining ’90s R&B boy-band images. When people dress up like ’90s R&B singers, that’s usually the look they go for.
Nobody involved in the production of II could agree on which song to release as the first single, but “I’ll Make Love To You” was the obvious choice, and that’s the one that Motown went with. The song came out in late July of 1994, a month before the album. The week that the album arrived, “I’ll Make Love To You” was already the #1 song in America, and it stayed in that spot for longer than anyone could’ve anticipated. The single topped the Hot 100 for a week longer than “End Of The Road” had done, and it tied Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as the longest-reigning #1 hit in history to that point. (Boyz II Men would later break that record.)
Anecdotally, that level of success is a bit baffling. I heard “I’ll Make Love To You” a whole lot in 1994, and the song definitely seemed a bit ridiculous even then. It was a huge hit by any measure, but I don’t remember “I’ll Make Love To You” becoming a cultural juggernaut on the level of “I Will Always Love You” or even “End Of The Road.” Still, “I’ll Make Love To You” walked a delicate line. It was polite enough for radio and raunchy enough for teenagers freaking each other at high-school dances. Apparently, the song was exactly what the American listening public wanted to hear in that moment.
With “End Of The Road” and “I’ll Make Love To You,” Boyz II Men were at the peak of their powers. II debuted at #1 on the album charts. It only stayed there for a couple of weeks. But after Eric Clapton’s From The Cradle knocked II out of the top spot, the Boyz II Men album kept coming back, racking up brief little one-week stays at #1 in the months that followed. By the time that “I’ll Make Love To You” finished its long run at #1, the album was already quintuple platinum. At that point, Boyz II Men were the undisputed kings of the Hot 100. We’ll see them again in this column very soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s murky footage of Justin Bieber, a guy who would definitely sing nothing but ’90s R&B if it was up to him, covering “I’ll Make Love To You” in a 2015 performance at the W Hotel Hollywood:
(Justin Bieber will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Last year, two different streaming comedies used “I’ll Make Love To You” to great effect. First, here’s the scene from the late, lamented High Fidelity where Zoë Kravitz gets all hot and bothered at Thomas Doherty’s scraggly cover of the song:
And here’s the scene from the delightfully deranged Search Party where Meredith Hagner sings the song at a wedding that does not go according to plan:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Sheryl Crow’s charming barfly ramble “All I Wanna Do” peaked at #2 behind “I’ll Make Love To You.” It’s an 8.
THE 10S: Craig Mack’s diamond-plated East Coast anthem “Flava In Ya Ear” peaked at #9 behind “I’ll Make Love To You.” (For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to pretend that the charting version of “Flava In Ya Ear” was the all-star remix with Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Rampage The Last Boy Scout. Technically, Mack’s original “Flava” is the one that charted, and that’s an 8, but the remix is the definitive version, and it’s the one I heard everywhere.) Word to mama: It tongue-kisses a piranha, electrocutes a barracuda, it’s here to bring the drama. It’s a 10.