Bow Wow soars highest among slick teen acts

August 19, 2002



Rarely has a tour been as aptly named as Scream II. As the three-act teen-fest pulled into a sold-out Allstate Arena on Friday night, one sound dominated, amplified by some 15,000 female pre-teens shrieking in unison.


While corporate-manufactured lily-white teen-pop phenoms such as Britney Spears and 'N Sync seem to have finally and thankfully run their course, a new wave of ultra-successful youth acts is fast rising in hip-hop and R&B, and Scream II was their showcase.

Kicking off the night with short and skimpy sets were two nearly identical syrupy-sweet vocal groups (though I use that term loosely), IMX (three "singers" and six dancers) and the much-hyped B2K (four "singers" and six dancers).

The quotation marks are there because I wasn't convinced that any of these young would-be Lotharios actually did sing. Both groups were "track acts," which meant they danced and allegedly sang along with pre-recorded musical backing tracks.

But they all seemed to be lip-synching in between their ultra-energetic aerobics-class dance moves.

The dead giveaway was that whenever one of these gents wanted to tell Chicago how much he loved it, or to whisper sweet nothings to all the beautiful "ladies" in the house (median age: 11 or 12), the soundman had to frantically increase the volume level on the microphone so that the performer could be heard. Hmmm... maybe they just sing louder than they talk?

Musically, both acts favor a vapid, soulless form of over-produced mainstream R&B. They are direct descendants from the old Babyface (or, more to the point, Boyz II Men and New Edition) school of slick balladry, with a little taste of hip-hop thrown in. But if the music was clean, the lyrics and the imagery most certainly were not.

The performers ripped off their shirts, thrust out their crotches, pouted with come-hither looks that were blown up and projected on giant video screens, and sang about the joys of losing your virginity (IMX's "First Time") and generally doing the wild thang (B2K's "Uh Huh"). All the while, they continually enticed the crowd with the promise that they would pick out some lucky young "ladies" to bring backstage.

Yes, there has always been sex in pop music. I would even argue that there should be: It is an outlet to aid in the coming of age, an inextricable part of an adolescent's socialization. But sex is best when sold with some subtlety, especially to a pre-teen audience.

In the wake of the R. Kelly teen-sex scandal, which continues to rock the R&B world, the horny come-on's of IMX and B2K were simply in incredibly bad taste, not to mention potentially illegal.

There were no such problems with headliner Bow Wow, an amazingly gifted young performer who needs little beside his considerable talent to galvanize an arena.

At the ripe old age of 15, the Columbus, Ohio, native (a performer since age 6) has dropped the "Lil'" from his stage name. And indeed, there was nothing little about his show. Bow Wow arrived via "parachute," dropping from the sky after a set-piece video introduction that had him helicoptering to the venue.

Later on, he "flew" across the arena, suspended by guide wires a la Britney or the 'N Sync boys. (When did it become a law that all teen-pop performers have to fly during their acts?)

Bow Wow needed none of this silliness (and I also could have lived without the mid-set trailer advertising his movie "Like Mike") because his fluid rhyming skills and considerable stage presence were more than enough to satisfy his many "Ghetto Girls" fans (to borrow the title of one of his biggest hits). He projected a persona three times taller than he actually is, and exuded a winning confidence that many talents three times his age seem to lack.

Backed by fellow MC Rocky and two DJs (the nimble Shakim and the equally astounding 11-year-old DJ Jus), Bow Wow lived up to his signature boast, and then some, delivering the goods on hits such as "Get Up," "Thank You" and "The Wickedest."

As the latter tune asks, what's his name? "B" ("for bad"), "O" ("for outstanding"), "W" ("because he's the wickedest"), "Wow" ("that's what the girls say!").

Actually, what the girls said was, "Aaaaaiiiiieeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!!!" But in Bow Wow's case, at least, it was certainly well-deserved.