In some ways, the record release party for "All I Feel," the fourth full-length release from R&B performer Ray J, felt more like a night out at the club with the Southern California native than an invitation-only music industry event.
Yes, there was the entourage entering Hollywood's Day After club through a darkened alley, the bevy of voluptuous young women clamoring for the star's attention, rapper Mack 10 entertaining the capacity crowd, plenty of alcohol. But instead of executives and journalists, the guest list was a roster of Ray J's childhood friends from Carson.
Still, the scene at his Sunday night homecoming underscored the image Ray J has tried to cultivate over the course of his relatively young career. The brother of crossover icon Brandy Norwood, born William Ray Norwood Jr. in 1981, worked hard to eradicate the squeaky clean, child-star image left over from his teenage appearances on Brandy's sitcom "Moesha."
These days, he's more renowned for writing and producing salacious R&B songs with graphic lyrics and L.A. gangbanger imagery -- and for a sex tape he made with reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
"On this album, I'm just being straight up with myself," Ray J offers, pulling out a wad of cash to buy drinks for his crew. "I'm not trying to candy-coat anything."
It's a strategy that seems to be working for the performer. "Sexy Can I," the first single from "All I Feel," hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, finding its way into heavy rotation on dance floors across the country. Three songs on the album deal with infidelity -- "Girl From the Bronx," "Boyfriend" and "Jump Off" -- while on "I Can Feel It," Ray J delves into the idea of losing his identity in the course of an intense relationship.
The Game cameos on the track "Where You At," which pays homage to West Coast gangsta rap, a major influence for Ray J, even though he doesn't claim a gang affiliation. Still, dressed in a red bowler hat, black T-shirt and baggy black jeans, his outfit is strictly Piru Blood.
It's another of the contradictions at the heart of Ray J's persona. His songs talk about gang life, but he says he's all about unity. His singles tend to perform well -- his breakout, the sultry, Neptunes-produced "Wait a Minute," featured the then 20-year-old beginning to explore his sexual side opposite guest performer Lil' Kim -- but his albums haven't quite met with the same acceptance.
And while he's committed to his music, he doesn't shy away from the celebrity he's garnered from the sex tape and other rumored celebrity dalliances.
"Sometimes it's a little edgy; it's a little raw," Ray J says of "All I Feel" -- and his larger musical identity. "But for the most part people love that because people are real, they are edgy and they are raw."
The controversy surrounding Ray J hasn't swayed the friends on hand at the record release celebration or his famous sibling, who admits she is impressed with the new album. "I can listen to it straight through," says Brandy, 29, shouting to be heard over the loud music at the club. "It's simple. You can sing along with it. I think he really took his time with it and took some risks."
He took a risk during the abbreviated set that closed the night too, playing just one-and-a-half songs. As Ray J cranked through "Don't Wanna Be Right," his childhood friends crowded the stage, dancing and throwing up gang signs.
"All those thugs grew up with us in a neighborhood called Centerview," explains Shannon Hendersen, 23, one of Brandy and Ray J's friends from Carson. "The reason why they call it that is because in the middle of all the houses there are atriums. They are really big houses with five, six, seven bedrooms. It's really nice."
Suddenly, at 1:50 a.m, a voice interrupts the performance, saying only, "Music is the truth of humanity. We are now closed."