The first time I saw Bow Wow he just a 13-year old kid with “Lil” in his name, Harlem shakin his heart out on the "Take Ya Home" video. Right away I had two thoughts:
- His raps may be written for him, but the boy can actually flow.
- Those models he’s grinding with are easily twice his age, especially the dominatrix one with the whip. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.
The early days of Bowizzle’s career were a blessing for the teenage rapper, but now that the man’s old enough to legally drink it’s beginning to feel more like a curse. The teenage girls that filled his mailbox with love letters and his bank account with zeros have made him a star, but you can’t be cute forever. Plus, it’s hard to be taken seriously when people remember you were barely cracking 5 feet. Leaving boyhood behind and becoming a man’s hard for everyone, but it’s especially hard when you grew up in the spotlight.
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What’s a 22-year-old ex-child star transitioning into adulthood to do? Drop a new album with a parental advisory sticker, of course. Bow Wow’s latest effort, New Jack City II, is a decided foray into more adult material that ironically finds him reuniting with childhood mentor and producer-extraordinaire Jermaine Dupri. The result is the story of an artist in transition, a balancing act that has Bow singing about strippers while still trying to hold onto the "Let Me Hold You" crowd. Bow Wow’s not a man-sized rapper yet, but he’s well on his way.
Bow Wow, Grown Ass Man
It’s no coincidence that New Jack City starts off with the sparse "Get That Paper," a fully-swaggered attempt to bury Lil Bow Wow once and for all. In retrospect it wasn’t a good idea to put the focus squarely on Bow’s wordplay; lines like “I ain’t kidding like Jason” are decent at best…especially when Nelly dropped them on "Hot in Herre" seven years ago. But Bow’s lyrics didn’t make him famous, his delivery and personality did. That’s why the banging "Been Doin" is a legitimate rider, swaggering on head-knocking DJ Toomp beat while Bow drops a remarkably precise rapid-fire flow. Add a street-cred endorsement from T.I. and "Been Doin" starts to look like the blueprint for Bow’s hip-hop future, though it could use more strippers. Speaking of which, why do I like "Pole In My Basement" so much? Everything about Bow singing in Auto-Tune tells me to run, but I can’t front, I’ve got "Pole In My Basement" on repeat. Maybe it’s the laid-back production, maybe it’s Bow’s surprisingly good vocals, but I can’t help but be a little impressed. Let’s see him put a pole in his kitchen, then I’ll be really impressed.
Bow Wow, Teen HeartThrob
As hard as Bow’s working to become his own man he’s too smart not to realize the biggest royalty checks he’s cashing are for "Like You." Accordingly, Bow’s made sure to sprinkle no small amount of scream-worthy tracks throughout New Jack City, starting with the T-Pain assisted "She’s My." He’s obviously hoping Pain can bridge the generational gap like he did for Chris Brown on "Kiss Kiss," and he almost succeeds. Pain and Bow manage to craft the kind of catchy single that radio should eat up, especially with a typically hilarious guest verse from T-Pain.
It’s the same story on the syrupy "You Can Get It All," a track nearly every radio R&B hitmaker has a hand in (Johnta Austin, Byran Michael Cox and Dupri). Bow hit the bottom of the teenage barrel on "Marco Polo," but here he raises his game, even sounding at times like Nelly circa 2002 (again). Personally, I prefer "Pole In My Basement," but I’m not a 15-year-old girl. That’s the song's intended target, and it hits square on.
The rest of New Jack City II falls between these two extremes, oscillating from the symbolic quasi-reunion with J.D. on "Rock Da Mic" to the uninhibited "I Ain’t Playin," featuring Trey Songz. Ultimately New Jack City doesn’t truly impress, but that’s OK. Like everyone, it will take time for Bow to come into his own as a man, and when he does we’ll look back at this album as the beginning of a new phase in his musical life…or the beginning of the end.