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Floating above it

Classical or trendy? Chris Brown is both in a concert at the Gibson.

January 01, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Rocking references that included Run-DMC, Japanese anime, 1950s sock hops and the biggest hit of 2007, Chris Brown rode into the Gibson Amphitheatre on Sunday for the first of his four Southern California concerts on a wave of futuristic nostalgia. Or was it nostalgic futurism?

The R&B whiz kid from small-town Virginia balanced between two key aspects of hip-hop culture: the traditionalist impulse that keeps break dancing and track suits relevant to teens and the urge to innovate, which leads even old-fashioned entertainers like Brown to spice up their hits with computer-generated beats and fill their shows with video trickery and other special effects.

Brown, who would like to fully claim the "New Michael Jackson" crown pundits keep dangling before him, showed no preference for an approach. His entrance Sunday, a "Mission Impossible"-style descent from the theater's rafters, cast him as a gadget-wielding superhero. But most of his dance routines showed how adept he is at vintage skills such as popping and locking or head spins. His own vision remained unclear as his show fluctuated between classicism and trendiness.

It's not that surprising that Brown, who's only 18, remains in flux. His two latest hits highlight the choices currently available to teen stars like himself. "Kiss Kiss" is a chilly, synthetically layered come-on featuring the ubiquitous T-Pain and on that most dated of futuristic effects, Autotune. "With You," produced by the Stargate team, is a warm love ballad built around Babyface-style acoustic grooves. Sunday's young, mostly female crowd greeted both with hysterics. Their fantasy Chris is both cyber-hard and soulfully soft.

A less enraptured observer would have noted that Brown failed to negotiate another divide. Throughout the show, he sang to recorded backing tracks instead of a live band, though the canned stuff was augmented by a live DJ and drummer. As is often the case with young performers who dance as much as they sing, Brown let the recorded music take over when his moves got tough, and he wasn't a convincing lip-syncer. His tenor voice, distinctively gentle on recordings, had little effect except on the rare occasions when the deafening beats simmered down and Brown improvised some melismatic phrases.

Still, it was a pleasure to watch Brown revel in his own gracefulness. He's probably the best young dancer in pop, and his brief pas de deux with a parasol during his slightly tweaked version of Rihanna's "Umbrella" dazzled. So did the back flips he nailed during the mock battle he staged with his opening act, the rapper Bow Wow, when they closed with a version of their 2006 single "Shortie Like Mine."

An apparition

Bow Wow and Brown were rather stiff partners, but their turn together beat the "duets" between Brown and absent stars such as Rihanna and Kanye West, who surfaced as apparitions on the screens affixed to the stage.

Even the mighty Celine Dion (who tried it with a holographic Elvis on last year's "Idol Gives Back" benefit show) has failed to achieve meaningful interaction with a projected image. It was amusing, though, when Brown challenged his own ghost to a break-dancing battle. Guess who won.

Brown's confidence resides in his feet, and he seemed most content leading his crew of dancers through challenging routines. He even gave extra time to two unusual troupe members, 9-year-old dancer Myles Brown and 11-year-old rapper Scooter. Both did their best to steal the spotlight as their boss affectionately looked on.

His unassuming aplomb is the source of Brown's appeal. He's not easily threatened, whether by other dancers, demanding girlfriends or a tough crowd. One of his nicknames is "Chris Breezy," and his blithe air charms and reassures his young fans. But he'll need to find some gravitas somewhere in order to reach the artistic level to which he aspires.

Bow Wow, whose set earned as many passionate screams as Brown's, showed more intentionality. In fact, his focus on playing the street tough got a bit silly.

He's a lover boy who raps instead of croons; his insistence on being "hard" made little sense, given the seductive nature of his lyrics and the melting effect he had on his female fans.

Unable or unwilling to generate any real menace, Bow Wow fulfilled a preteen's dream of the dangerous life. But his biggest crime was probably ungratefulness.

At the end of his set, he made a big deal of his upcoming tour with singer Omarion, his costar on the new album "Face Off." Did Brown feel betrayed? Probably not. He's moved on to T-Pain, after all.


Chris Brown with Bow Wow

Where: Gibson Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

When: 7:15 p.m. Thursday

Price: $49.75 to $99.75

Contact: (818) 777-3931


Chris Brown with Bow Wow and Sean Kingston

Where: Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Price: $45.75 to $95.75

Contact: (714) 704-2500

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