Wherefore Art Thou?

The Thug You Save May Be Your Own

On the best song off the Jackson 5's excellent 1970 Christmas album, Marlon asks for new shoes; Jackie, a basketball hoop seven feet high; and horn dog Jermaine, some mistletoe; while Michael, sweet Michael, only wants "love and peace for everyone." Not sure what Saint Nick had in store for Percy Miller Jr., a/k/a Lil' Romeo, this past Xmas, but then again, what do you get a 13-year-old platinum-selling rap star anyway? On a recent episode of MTV Cribs, Romeo, the son of No Limit label head/third-rate MC Master P, dragged a camera crew through his pop's Houston mansion, stopping to give mom props for her cooking and ending the tour in the garage, where he showed off his very own Mercedes (never mind that he'd need three phone books under his ass just to see above the steering wheel).

Despite the unabashed displays of opulence and claims of playground prominence, Romeo's second album shoots for the sugar-sweet punch of early J5 records: super-bright pop fare with cross-racial appeal, safe and shallow as a Disney movie. Suffused with this kiddie-friendly agenda, Romeo turns out innocuous retreads of hip-hop's most archetypal lyrical gambits: Jay Z-style braggadocio is translated into Romeo's ability to win over mall-rat cuties or to dominate the basketball court; P. Diddy's generic social conscience begets a stay-in-school ad and Romeo's very own love-and-peace ballad, dedicated "to all the people when the World Trade hit the floor"; even the first single, "True Love," featuring Beyonce Knowles's lil' sister, banks on a kiddie version of the Ja Rule-Ashanti rapper-plus-hook girl formula.

Of course, sophistication is asking too much from this pop phenom, and commercial calculation can be lots of fun anyway. While Pink and Timberlake and a host of pop kids who might have baby-sat Romeo a few years back are growing up with the help of beatwise producers and song-doctoring adults, Romeo's still young enough to fill an album with hooks either candy-coated or tried-and-true. And so the place where papa's fortune really shows itself is in the assortment of expensive samples and rejiggerings of the J5, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, Whodini, and Special Ed, not to mention "Annie," "Peter Pan," and "If You're Happy and You Know it." Problem is, most of these borrowings sound like ends in themselves, and Romeo's prepubescent flow (more dexterous and varied than dad's, in fact) and references to his jet-setting teenage life are all that save Game Time from becoming hip-hop as pro forma as Ja Rule's or Master P's.

"My Baby," the J5-rejiggering hit from Romeo's 2001 debut, sounded like a party that children of all ages were invited to. But whether he's urging kids to stop acting like kids ("Wanna Grow Up"), asking his Juliet to go steady ("Girlfriend or Boyfriend"), or proclaiming himself "Richie Rich," he never quite achieves the preternatural youthful sass that overflowed from the J5's best hits. If you believe his press kit, Romeo's career options, in order of preference, are a) NBA star, b) rapper, or c) "just sitting on the side being a business person" like pops. For now, his good nature ensures that kids who will never enjoy his privilege can look up to him as some kind of role model. Here's hoping that if he doesn't have another dazzling single in him, he at least doesn't become another tricked-out playa off of dad's Thugs-R-Us assembly line. That would be, like, tragic.

 
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