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Hip-hop boybands dress up kiddie-pop in grown-up clothes, except when butt-naked in the classroom

"I'm grown," 18-year-old Shad Gregory Moss announces two times in a row in "Do What It Do," a cut from Wanted, his fourth album as Bow Wow. He says it once to prove whatever he didn't make clear when he famously dropped the "Lil' " from his stage name; he says it twice to rhyme with "I make you moan." If you hadn't already guessed, Wanted is Bow Wow's coming-of-age album: On the cover of 2003's Unleashed he posed amid Technicolor video-game explosions; here we get a sepia-toned portrait of the artist in front of a mean-streets cityscape—an obvious tip of the Kangol to Illmatic by Nas.

Bow Wow may be ready for his bump up from kiddie-pop to hip-hop: In the November issue of Vibe he declares that though "I might look like" a virgin, "I ain't." One pivotal scene in Roll Bounce, his recent feel-good roller-skating flick, features the Atlanta-based rapper demolishing his pop's broke-down four-door with a baseball bat, giving his introduction to adulthood some remarkably literal heft. And throughout the lean, compulsively listenable Wanted, Bow brags about an income greatly exceeding any weekly allowance or after-school wage: "Money stacks taller than the Empire State," he estimates in "B.O.W."

Still, despite the imminent loss of one of its biggest stars, kiddie-pop of the urban persuasion has been enjoying a renaissance of late, flourishing just as its white-bread counterpart gasps the latest in a long line of last gasps. This summer, the fourth edition of the BET-sponsored Scream Tour rolled across America, bringing with it two brother acts bred in Florida (where else?): Pretty Ricky and B5, both hungry to fill the vacancy created when B2K broke up last year. And the radio has been buzzing for months with nifty hits by young MCs and singers such as Brooke Valentine, Rihanna, former B2K frontboy Omarion, and Ciara, who duets with her boyfriend on Wanted's woozy "Like You," in which Bow lets her drive his Benz. (Even thug motivator Young Jeezy saw the virtue in forming a boyband, Boyz N Da Hood, before dropping his solo debut in July.)

Pretty Ricky play house and touch.
photo: Jonathan Mannion
Pretty Ricky play house and touch.

Details

Bow Wow
Wanted
Columbia
Stream "Do You" (Windows Media)
Stream "Caviar" (Windows Media)

Pretty Ricky
Bluestars
Atlantic/
Stream "Playhouse " (Windows Media)
Stream "Your Body " (Windows Media)

B5
Bad Boy
Stream "U Got Me " (Windows Media)
Stream "Teacherís Pet " (Windows Media)

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Beyond soundtrack tie-ins and product-placement shout-outs—in "Is That You (P.Y.T.)," Bow name-drops iPods, Ugg boots, Mickey D's and Nextel camera phones ("with all the hot ringtones")—the question motoring much of this music is what kiddie-hop should say about its constituency. Should it reflect the adolescence too often sacrificed to circumstance or the cues taken from the adults steering the industry? Or both?

On the engaging yet deeply depressing Bluestars, Pretty Ricky queasily graft grammar school imagery to porn-culture desire. "We can play house and touch," singer Pleasure suggests in the album's slow-jam opener, "I'm-a eat your body out like lunch"; in "Call Me," as a music box tinkles Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, rapper Slick 'Em advises ladies to booty-beep him on his Sidekick. What's simultaneously fascinating and repulsive about Bluestars is that you keep expecting a reality check that never arrives—the would-be contradictions simply pile up ever higher. By the time Slick 'Em offers to get "butt-naked in the classroom on the teacher's school desk," you're just wondering who he's cavorting with.

B5 make things simpler—even if their appearance at a suburban Minneapolis mall earlier this month sparked what one Radio Disney rep called a "girl frenzy" that required 70 police officers to quell. In "Teacher's Pet," from the squeaky-clean Diddy protégés' self-titled debut, 15-year-old Patrick Breeding ogles "this girl so beautiful from her head to her cuticles"; when he discovers that she's his substitute, he requests the opportunity to "show you that I understand what it takes to be a man." That illicit conference aside, B5 tempers Bluestars' bluster with more age-appropriate sentiment: In the Rodney Jerkins–produced Jackson 5 update "All I Do," Patrick takes the long way home from school to mull over ways to ask out his crush. And in an a cappella rendition of "Let It Be," it's not Mother Mary speaking words of wisdom—it is in fact the brothers' actual mother. Is the Breeding brothers' message healthier for the youth of our nation? Hey, ask Samuel Alito. Sure is good to hear it, though.

 
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