The Number Ones

December 3, 1994

The Number Ones: Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

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.

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In Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film Last Days, we watch a barely-fictionalized version of Kurt Cobain amble around his house, withdrawing from the world and avoiding the various hangers-on before finally taking his own life. Nothing much happens in the movie, and that’s the point. Last Days is a sort of extremist art film that aims to demystify musician-biopic conventions. Blake, the Cobain character played by Michael Pitt, isn’t a tragic genius or the voice of a generation — or, if he is, then we don’t get to see him that way. We just see him as a guy who cannot handle the world. In one memorable scene, Boyz II Men play the role of “the world.”

Halfway through Last Days, we see the Cobain character, in a black dress and combat boots, curling in on himself in a smacked-out stupor as Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” plays on the soundtrack. After the Cobain figure passes out, a roommate walks in, props him up, and then leaves. The Cobain character comes to, and he stares at a TV that happens to be playing the “On Bended Knee” video. Van Sant’s camera goes to the TV, which plays the “On Bended Knee” video for something like two uninterrupted minutes. We hear the song intermingling with the ominous drones of the film score. When the video ends, the Cobain figure stirs, grabs his nearby shotgun, and ambles off.

There are a few different ways to read that bizarre Boyz II Men cameo. The soaring drama of “On Bended Knee” contrasts sharply with the expressionless haze of this Cobain character, and maybe that contrast is there to highlight the yawing gulf between actual depressing life and the maudlin way that it’s represented in popular music. Maybe it’s there to show how Cobain viewed himself as an alien, how popular culture looked strange and incomprehensible to him even after he became a part of it. Or maybe we’re just supposed to think that this guy is so bored and depressed and strung out that he’s willing to sit through a whole Boyz II Men video.

I don’t know if the real Kurt Cobain ever sat through a Boyz II Men video, but he definitely never saw the “On Bended Knee” clip. Boyz II Men released “On Bended Knee” as a single six months after the real Cobain died. When “On Bended Knee” reached #1, Boyz II Men became only the second act in Hot 100 history to replace themselves at the top of the Hot 100. The Beatles had done it in 1964, going back-to-back-to-back and holding the #1 spot for 14 uninterrupted weeks. (Elvis Presley had once replaced himself at #1, too, but he did that in the pre-Hot 100 era.) When Boyz II Men pulled it off, they held that top spot even longer.

“On Bended Knee” knocked “I’ll Make Love To You” out of the #1 spot after “I’ll Make Love To You” had occupied the top of the Hot 100 for 14 weeks, tying Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for the longest-ever reign to that point. “I’ll Make Love To You” is a soft, tender romantic ballad. So is “On Bended Knee.” For 20 weeks in 1994 and 1995, American music consumers wanted to hear soft, tender romantic Boyz II Men ballads more than we wanted to hear anything else. With that Last Days scene, maybe Gus Van Sant was trying to evoke that sense of stasis, of a world stuck in an infinite-repeat loop. If that was the point of the scene, though, it misses out on something pretty crucial: “On Bended Knee” is a great song.

The big knock on “I’ll Make Love To You,” the reason that Boyz II Men themselves were reluctant to record the song, was that it sounded too much like their previous mega-hit “End Of The Road.” Babyface wrote and produced “I’ll Make Love To You” after he’d already co-written and co-produced “End Of The Road,” and it’s pretty easy to imagine that he was trying to repeat himself when he came up with “I’ll Make Love To You.” By that some token, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the duo who wrote and produced “On Bended Knee,” were definitely trying to evoke “End Of The Road.” Jam and Lewis loved “End Of The Road”; they thought it was a great example of what they called the begging song. When they heard an early version of Boyz II Men’s II album, Jam and Lewis noticed that the album didn’t really have a great begging song, so they wrote one.

Boyz II Men were big admirers of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. When the teenage members of Boyz II Men snuck backstage at a Philadelphia radio-station show and auditioned for the former New Edition member Michael Bivins, they sang New Edition’s 1988 single “Can You Stand The Rain,” which Jam and Lewis had written and produced. (“Can You Stand The Rain” peaked at #44.) In 1994, Boyz II Men met Jam and Lewis at a music-industry dinner. They told the story of their audition, sang “Can You Stand The Rain” once again, and told Jam and Lewis that they needed a song like that. Jam and Lewis figured that Boyz II Men were already hugely successful, and they figured that the group didn’t really need their help.

A few weeks later, Boyz II Men, in Minneapolis for the NBA All-Star Game, dropped by Jam and Lewis’ Flyte Tyme studios and played them the in-progress version of II, asking the duo what they thought the album needed. That’s when Jam and Lewis hit on the idea of the begging song. Jam and Lewis actually wrote two songs on II; “All Around The World,” their other contribution, is an uptempo number that never became a single. Working with Boyz II Men, Jam and Lewis were impressed that the singers figured out their own layered harmonies without any help from the writers.

Lyrically, “On Bended Knee” could almost be a sequel to “End Of The Road.” Once again, the members of Boyz II Men are wracked with anguish after a breakup. Once again, they’re begging you to take them back. Bass singer Michael McCary even comes in with another Barry White-style spoken-word rumination on the bridge: “Baby, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for all the wrong I’ve done. Please come back home, girl.” But “On Bended Knee” never feels like a repeat. The song’s title is a sort of triple entendre. The narrator is praying to God to repair this relationship, and he’s also weak in the knees without his love. The ad-libs that end the song suggest another meaning: “Wanna build a new life! Just you and me! Gonna make you my wife! Raise a family!”

In its evocation of marriage, “On Bended Knee” feels like Boyz II Men’s answer to “I Swear,” the Boyz II Men-esque ballad that All-4-One took to #1 earlier in 1994. People must’ve really been in a marrying mood that year. It’s also funny to think about “I’ll Make Love To You” and “On Bended Knee,” two songs that appear right next to one another on the II album, forming a kind of meta-narrative. Traditionally, you’re supposed to make love after getting married, so maybe Boyz II Men were being savvy and modern in flipping the order. But I wonder: How did they mess up their relationship in the first place? They were so committed to making love, but “On Bended Knee” finds them apologizing again and again.

The “On Bended Knee” video offers one explanation: Wanya Morris looked at some other girl with a little too much interest at some kind of store. In the clip, Wanya’s girlfriend is played by Lark Voorhies, who’d just gotten done playing Lisa on Saved By The Bell a year earlier. The clip, from “I’ll Make Love To You” director Lionel C. Martin, shows the members of Boyz II Men in different relationships, and all the women are TV actresses: Kim Fields from The Facts Of Life and Living Single, Renée Jones from Days Of Our Lives, Victoria Rowell from The Young And The Restless. All the guys blow it in different ways, and so they’re all left out in the literal rain, dramatically throwing back their umbrellas when they need to sing big notes. Lots of R&B videos take place in rainstorms, but the singers rarely remember to bring umbrellas. Boyz II Men have the umbrellas, but they’re still willing to get drenched to make their point.

The video is dramatic and ridiculous and also pretty entertaining, and the same holds true for the song. Jam and Lewis’ production is subtle and genuinely lovely; I like it a lot better than what Babyface did with “I’ll Make Love To You.” There are all kinds of nice little touches in there: the tingling bells, the softly whining G-funk keyboard, the pounding piano notes that recall Elton John. But the arrangement stays out of the way of the singers. Jam and Lewis know that Boyz II Men are the main attraction here.

And Boyz II Men really sing that. When singers get all showy with their melismatic runs, they can sometimes lose a song’s melody or its emotional center. I used to get deeply annoyed at all the American Idol performances where contestants would wear plastered-on pageant smiles while singing sad songs. That’s not a problem here. Boyz II Men have these rich interweaving harmonies and these big solo moments, but they always convey the gravity of this heartbreak that they’re describing.

Whenever Boyz II Men launch into big solos, they sound like they’re about to break down. When they come together on the beginning of the chorus, their grief hits like a tidal wave: “Can we go back to the daaaays our love waaaas strong? Can you tell me how a perrrrr-fect love goes wrooooong?” By the time the chorus ends, though, they’re down to a soft half-whisper — like they expended all their energy asking those questions and they know that they’re not going to like the answers. And when that key change hits? Man. Every single moment in “On Bended Knee” practically drowns in cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason. With “On Bended Knee,” those clichés work. You feel them.

“On Bended Knee” snuck up on me. I never really realized that I cared about this song. It was always just there, and I think I took it for granted. Sitting down to write this column, I found out that I could sing along with every word of the chorus and that, more importantly, I wanted to sing along with every word of the chorus. “On Bended Knee” does nothing new, but the execution is immaculate. Boyz II Men might’ve sounded a bit awkward singing about sex on “I’ll Make Love To You,” but singing about heartbreak was always right in their wheelhouse. With “On Bended Knee,” they nailed it.

When “On Bended Knee” knocked “I’ll Make Love To You” out of the #1 spot, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were a little bummed out. They wanted “I’ll Make Love To You” to get another week on top. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam explains: “We’re pretty good friends with Babyface. We were hoping ‘I’ll Make Love To You’ would break the record. Motown said, ‘Look, we couldn’t hold it anymore.'”

Boyz II Men followed “On Bended Knee” with a single that, for once, was not a tender romantic ballad. The members of the group co-wrote and co-produced “Thank You” with Dallas Austin. It’s a breezy midtempo jam about Boyz II Men’s gratitude for their fans, and it’s got some dizzily complex harmonies. I really like “Thank You,” but it peaked at #21, nowhere near the heights of their previous singles. Their next single after “Thank You” was another Babyface-written ballad, and it was another smash. “Water Runs Dry” is yet another begging song, and it’s a good one, with an intricate arrangement full of fleet acoustic guitars and impressionistic strings. Once again, the group had a smash on their hands; “Water Runs Dry” peaked at #2. (It’s a 7.) Maybe this was America telling Boyz II Men that they should just keep singing ballads.

The next two singles from II, “Vibin'” and “I Remember,” only made it to the middle of the Hot 100. It didn’t matter. In the US alone, II sold 12 million copies. And thanks to the back-to-back chart power of “I’ll Make Love To You” and “On Bended Knee,” Boyz II Men pulled off something that only the Beatles had done before. II ends with a really nice a cappella cover of the Beatles’ chart-topper “Yesterday,” almost like Boyz II Men had that goal in mind. Boyz II Men weren’t done making hits, either. The next time they show up in this column, they really will break that “I Will Always Love You” record.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Three 6 Mafia members DJ Paul and Lord Infamous sampling “On Bended Knee” on their lo-fi 1995 underground track “Tryna Run Game”:

(Three 6 Mafia’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the climactic scene from the 2018 Tyler Perry film Nobody’s Fool where a despondent Tika Sumpter sings “On Bended Knee” to Omari Hardwick:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s JPEGMAFIA and Freaky’s 2019 track “Boyz 2 Men,” which turns an “On Bended Knee” sample into nerve-jangling weirdness:

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