The Number Ones

October 4, 1997

The Number Ones: Boyz II Men’s “4 Seasons Of Loneliness”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

It’s so hard to say goodbye, but that’s what we’re doing today. Between 1992 and 1997, Boyz II Men spent a grand total of 50 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — two weeks shy of an entire year and nine weeks short of the Beatles’ all-time total. Boyz II Men did that with just five #1 hits. The quartet had a wild habit of breaking chart records with those singles. “End Of The Road,” “I’ll Make Love To You,” and the Mariah Carey collaboration “One Sweet Day” all temporarily held the record for the longest-reigning #1 hit of all time. It must’ve been weird for Boyz II Men when the lead single from 1997’s Evolution, their third album, only held that #1 spot for a week. They must’ve known that something was ending.

Maybe it was a relief. The world had plenty of time to get sick of Boyz II Men during the group’s imperial era. But Boyz II Men never really had to deal with a full-on public backlash like the one that overwhelmed their onetime chart peers and future nostalgia-circuit tourmates New Kids On The Block. Instead, when their time came, Boyz II Men made a quiet and dignified exit from the winners’ circle, and they did it with a perfectly unmemorable trifle of a song.

In a certain sense, Boyz II Men were throwbacks even when they arrived — good-natured balladeers who rode in on new jack swing but who found their greatest success by evoking the sad splendor of ’70s Philly soul. For a few years, that style made Boyz II Men unstoppable. But by the late ’90s, other sounds had started to come into R&B. Its proximity to rap had made R&B tougher and more streamlined. The brutish flash of Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy production squad had an effect on R&B, and the spaced-out futurism of Timbaland — and of all the producers who started trying to sound like Timbaland — warped and mutated the genre, too. Boyz II Men’s onetime duet partner Mariah Carey adapted to those changes, switching her style up to meet the moment. Boyz II Men couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. “4 Seasons Of Loneliness,” the group’s final #1 hit, is Boyz II Men doing their ballad thing — a style that was sort of doubly old-fashioned by 1997.

Boyz II Men had gotten their 1994 chart-topper “On Bended Knee” from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the mega-successful songwriting and production duo. They’d recorded that song with Jam and Lewis after a chance meeting at the 1994 NBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis. Three years later, the All-Star Game was in Cleveland, and Boyz II Men once again ran across Jam and Lewis. (It must be fun to be a celebrity during All-Star Weekend.) Boyz II Men were beginning the daunting task of following up their insanely successful album II, and they wanted to know when they could return to Minneapolis and get to work with Jam and Lewis again. Jam and Lewis had just come up with an idea for a song about a heartbreak that keeps repeating throughout the year, and they presented it to the group.

The concept of “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” is simple, and it’s also more than a little bit gimmicky. Here’s how Jimmy Jam explains the idea in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “Every time the season changed, the things that had to do with the season would remind you of this girl — like in the winter when the snow fell, or in the spring when the flowers bloomed.” The duo went back and forth on how to construct the song: Should they split the seasons up between choruses, or should they cram all four seasons into one chorus? They decided to cram.

Maybe that decision is the reason that “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” drifts by without ever leaving much of an impression. The chorus has a lot of words, since the song’s concept depends on describing all these different seasons of loneliness at once: “In comes the winter breeze that chills the air and drifts the snow/ And I imagine kissing you under the mistletoe,” etc. A song that wordy has a built-in technical challenge. The singers need to deliver all that text without losing the song’s emotional center. The members of Boyz II Men were all master technicians, so the cascading syllables of the chorus weren’t a problem. But Boyz II Men were always at their best when delivering an overpowering monster chorus, and there’s simply not enough melody in “4 Seasons Of Loneliness.” There’s no emotional payoff to the song. It never makes you feel the devastation.

At least to me, “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” never feels like a description of a real breakup. The central idea of the song — that sadness can hit in different ways as time keeps changing — is real enough. But Jam and Lewis’ lyrics have no heft or specificity to them. Instead, they just present different seasonal images with a twinge of sadness. The four singers all do pretty amazing work on the song, layering delicately wordy melodies all over each other in complex harmonies. But as anything other than a vocal showcase, I just don’t get much out of the track.

There are some nice little production moments in “4 Seasons Of Loneliness.” The busily echoing drum-machine patterns nod toward what was happening elsewhere in R&B, and I like the soft little murmurs of the bass. But the song never jumps out. I’d say the video is a whole lot more memorable than the song itself. Paul Hunter, who directed a lot of the videos for 1997’s biggest hits, sends his camera spinning across different landscapes, usually with a distracting whooshing sound effect. The colors all pop like crazy, and we get all sorts of showy moments like the zoom out from a galactic tableau that’s somehow contained in Shawn Stockman’s eye.

That “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” is part of the great late-’90s trend of R&B videos that take place in glittering, spotless spaceships. I love those videos. That whole trend probably started with another Jam and Lewis production, Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” in 1995, and it kept going until the beginning of the new century. (“Scream” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) That visual style worked great for the psychedelic-cybernetic form of R&B that came into vogue during that stretch. It’s an odd match for the sensitive souls in Boyz II Men, who look a lot more comfortable when they’re dramatically throwing down their umbrellas in rainstorms than they do piloting some kind of Sexy Enterprise. But I’m glad they tried.

When Boyz II Men recorded their Evolution album, they had some clashes with their Motown label bosses about their direction. The group fought hard to release “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” as the album’s first single. The album itself was loaded up with similarly low-key balladry, though it did have a few tracks produced by Puff Daddy and his associates. But Boyz II Men never released those Puffy tracks as singles. (The Cameo-sampling Puffy/Amen-Ra/Stevie J production “Can’t Let Her Go” reached #23 in the UK, but it never came out as a single in the US.) The times might have changed, but Boyz II Men weren’t interested in leaving their heartbreak-ballad zone.

I can’t really call “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” a failure. Anytime a song gets to #1, that song is a success. But when you compare “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” to the monster hits that Boyz II Men scored a few years earlier, it does seem like a pretty steep fall-off. Evolution went double platinum — pretty good, but nowhere near as good as the diamond sales of II. Boyz II Men followed “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” with another ballad. Babyface wrote and produced “A Song For Mama,” and it served as the theme of the much-loved movie Soul Food. “A Song For Mama” peaked at #7, and it turned out to be the last top-10 hit for Boyz II Men. (It’s a 6.)

After their run of pop dominance ended, Boyz II Men never stopped recording. The group toured behind Evolution, but they had problems. Boyz II Men had to postpone a bunch of dates after Wanya Morris got a polyp on his vocal cords. Bass singer Michael McCary’s health was suffering, and his multiple sclerosis was a factor when he eventually quit the group in 2003. Since his departure, Boyz II Men have gone on as a trio, and McCary has popped up for occasional one-off reunions.

“4 Seasons Of Loneliness” wasn’t just the last #1 hit for Boyz II Men; it was also the last chart-topper to come out on Motown before Universal absorbed that venerated company. Boyz II Men only released one album, 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, as part of the Universal machine, and that album stalled out at gold. Since then, Boyz II Men have jumped to a few different labels — sometimes major, sometimes indie. They’ve turned up for cameo appearances in movies and TV shows and commercials. They play shows all the time, and they’ll spend this summer touring through some of North America’s finest casinos and outdoor-shed theaters.

Last year, Boyz II Men were the focus of an episode of the Netflix show This Is Pop, and a couple of people I know were talking heads on that episode. (Shout out to Slate’s Chris Molanphy, another pop-chart-historian, who does a nice job explaining just how huge the group was.) The thesis of that episode was that Boyz II Men are historically underrated. They were commercial titans who influenced entire generations of boy bands, and they’re still out there making people happy now. In the Boyz II Men moment, it would’ve been difficult to imagine a time when that group could be considered unsung heroes. But that’s the way pop history works. Omnipresent megastars fade away and become historical footnotes, and new characters rush in from the wings to replace them. Boyz II Men had a hell of a run. They were overlords of their era, but we won’t see them in this column again.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michigan future bass producer Atu sampling “4 Seasons Of Loneliness” on his 2013 track “Let Me”:

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