Critic’s Notebook: Mindless Behavior, an Old-Style Boy Band

March 16th, 2013

Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

From left, Prodigy, Princeton and Ray Ray of Mindless Behavior, which has just released its second album.

Judging by the old rules and metrics, the boy band has been severely debased in the last couple of years. Gone are the song-and-dance extravaganza groups of decades past. What we have now are the Wanted and One Direction, British imports whose nonchalance can feel like an undermining commentary on the traditional model.

Change is good, of course, but this evolution leaves a huge gap at the classicist end of the boy-band spectrum, which is why the un-self-conscious Los Angeles foursome Mindless Behavior — with its extreme outfits, its buoyant dancing and its, um, wide range of vocal skill — is so refreshing.

The enjoyable, breathless “All Around the World” (Streamline/Conjunction/Interscope) is the second Mindless Behavior album, following “#1 Girl,” from 2011, and it demonstrates both how much energy still goes into making teen-oriented music and also how easy it can be to overlook strong music when it comes out of the mouths of babes.

Mindless Behavior has four members: Prodigy, Princeton, Ray Ray and Roc Royal, all in their midteens and all younger than their British counterparts. Prodigy does most of the heavy vocal lifting, though the work is now slightly better distributed than it was on the group’s debut album. The songs travel well-worn territory: learning about love, pining for love, etc. But this is an age of accelerated youth, and the way these young men want to build relationships is modern.

Their universe is one of retweets and Twitpics, hotel rooms and video chats. It’s maybe not surprising that the most affecting song on this album is the one about the ending of a relationship between two stars who shine so brightly they can’t occupy the same space anymore. “I guess it’s official, you don’t wanna kick it with a five-star stunna like me,” goes one line in the song, “Used to Be.” “We used to be like Jay and Beyoncé, Brad and Angelina,” goes another.

These are songs beyond the members’ age. Others touch on the magical properties of older women (“Pretty Girl”) and the utility of the recorded image in courtship (“Video”). “Keep Her on the Low” makes knowing references to Menudo and the Jackson 5. (In the documentary “Mindless Behavior: All Around the World,” which was released on Friday, the group members are shown making a pilgrimage to the house in Gary, Ind., where the Jacksons grew up.)

The music, largely produced by Walter W. Millsap III and Candice C. Nelson, neatly intertwines most of the pop gestures of the last few years — some dance-music stuttering, some paper-thin soul, some pop maximalism. With its high-energy dance-R&B, Mindless Behavior recalls decadent, late-period ’NSync more than any other boy band of the current era. The Wanted is more blatantly European, leaning on four-on-the-floor dance music structures, and One Direction would prefer to not be coordinated in any way, as evidenced by its lack of dance moves and music that borrows widely from outside teenage pop.

It’s notable, also, that the members of Mindless Behavior are, unlike those of the Wanted or One Direction, African-American. As a result the group is not often mentioned in the same breath as its boy-band brethren. It’s also experienced a different level and type of success: it’s had hits on the R&B chart but has barely made a dent on the pop chart.

That’s partly because pop has steadily absorbed black styles; many of the things Mindless Behavior is good at already exist elsewhere. It’s a shift from the 1980s, when New Edition had significant pop success, even as its sound was polished up and repackaged by New Kids on the Block. (New Edition’s members also went on to significant post-group careers.) When B2K arrived in the early 2000s, it caught some of the tail wind of ’NSync’s boy band success, but it faded quickly. And as hip-hop became pop’s real crossover engine, R&B began to resegregate, at least until the recent dance-R&B crossover moment.

Mindless Behavior may have a trick up its sleeve, though. Near the end of the new album is “Forever,” and it’s a curveball: a slow, guitar-driven ballad. Though it has some keyboard swells and some digital enhancement, it remains straightforward throughout. In concert, it’ll require stools to sit on, not exuberant dance moves. It sounds a lot like a One Direction song. Watch out.

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