There is no secret formula, nor an obvious one, to pop glory. For every hit-maker clinging to the usual pop cliches, there is a long line of failed singers going nowhere with the same tired gimmicks. Some ability, or at least gall, can make all the difference.
Both sides of that scenario could be found at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Saturday with a gathering of current R&B;/hip-hop artists, from the singing-dancing sets of Ginuwine and boy band B2K to the sly, bare-bones rap of Eve.
As she did in another too-brief local set in December, Ashanti transformed modern soul cliches into something real and personal. Accompanied only by the samples and beats of her DJ, Ashanti's sound was slick and easily digested, and yet somehow pushed beyond its limitations.
While dropping in the occasional vocal somersault to suggest untapped range, she sang her breakthrough hit "What's Luv" as barely coached fans sang back, "It's about us! It's about us!"
It's a connection with listeners that was recently rewarded with five Grammy nominations, and Ashanti turned a 30-minute performance into something more than a supporting role, dropping confetti and balloons on fans, and closing with a few moments of a cappella that outshone her other material.
She is undoubtedly capable of more. And her music would be better served next time by headlining a smaller room rather than anything like this package show at the Pond, where the upper decks were nearly empty.
That performance was only more impressive in contrast to top-billed B2K, whose (fortunately) brief set was a stark example of career cynicism, as the boy band danced and danced, making no lasting connection at all. Everything was scripted, and whatever live vocals there were in B2K's set were inconsequential, because prerecorded music and voices carried all the weight.
Even some of the "live" vocals seemed lip-synced or at least enhanced. That's hardly unprecedented in pop music, but always astonishing to see played out at a major venue by a chart-topping act. Bringing four female fans on stage even failed to generate any real heat, as the young men gyrated mechanically for their guests.
The four singer-dancers of B2K are possibly talented, but who could tell? The creative handlers behind these four young men had them jumping through all the obvious hoops, without a single moment of originality or genuine personality, showing only disrespect for the audience and destroying any goodwill or expectation that B2K is destined for a long career.
The aims of Ginuwine are no less commercial than B2K's, and yet the singer at least invests his live show with energy and larger-than-life personality.
For his performance, Ginuwine was backed by prerecorded music, but also the rich harmonies of four background singers. Ginuwine offered no lasting musical experiences but at least delivered an amusing night out. He's a smooth operator and crowd-pleaser, keeping fans entertained as much by what he did between songs, like a romantic "pledge of allegiance to the women of Anaheim." His slow jams were breathless, almost desperate romantic pleadings. He earned his biggest ovations whenever he briefly lifted his shirt or slowly wiped his chest with a towel before dangling it above screaming fans.
And as he began his newest single, the jangly funk of "Hell Yeah," he asked if fans recognized the song. "If you don't know it," he said, "pretend that you do."
Earlier, Eve rap-shouted to a single DJ, a backup vocalist and a quartet of dancers. It was a raw musical approach that couldn't do justice to her recorded work, including a new album, "Eve-Olution," that has her holding her own with Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg. At the Pond, her song "Satisfaction" was reduced to beats and bad attitude. At least the attitude and voice were hers.