Meet the new prince of pop

Times Staff Writer

About 35 hours into a frenetic three-day swing through the Southland last week, chart-topping R&B; phenom Chris Brown was running behind schedule and decidedly low on energy.

Uncharacteristically slouched in an overstuffed recliner backstage at the Gibson Amphitheatre, the 17-year-old Virginia native slid the brim of a black baseball cap down over his face, stifling the impulse to yawn. “I’m not tired yet,” Brown said, “but I’m getting there.”

Just a day earlier, he had bused in from Kansas City, Kan., to headline the Up Close and Personal Tour 2006 -- a traveling festival of ascendant urban music acts that includes rappers Juelz Santana and Lil Wayne, and R&B; up-and-comers such as Cherish and Ne-Yo. And though Brown had come prepared to hit his marks, his local agenda was chockablock with promotional appearances, speaking engagements, sound checks and performances.


On arrival, the 6-foot-3 singer -- admired as much for his fluidly athletic, Michael Jackson-esque dance moves as his boyish tenor -- went straight to a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” It wrapped just in time for Brown to make the film premiere of the dance dramedy “Stomp the Yard,” in which he costars.

Another young American idol, another typical swing shift in Hollywood. But Brown insisted that fame won’t change his essential view of himself.

“I just try to keep the same exact way I was in Virginia,” he said. “I feel the need to accomplish stuff. And God will bless me if I work and can be so humble.”

Still, it’s hard out there for a prince of pop -- especially a newly anointed teen idol such as Brown, a self-described “normal kid” whose commitment to being a role model for young fans and precocious workaholism have resulted in him doing well and doing good. His self-titled 2005 debut has sold 1.6 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, spawning four Top 10 hits, including last summer’s ubiquitous party thumper “Run It,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Somewhere near downtown L.A. on Thursday, Chris Brown’s traveling road show hit the first of several setbacks that threw the rest of his schedule into disarray. Due to a “security concern,” Brown was an hour late for the motivational speaking engagements at three local high schools.

“The first one was this group home -- an orphanage,” Brown recalled. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to give a speech. You’re living good. You’ve got to tell them how it is.’ The kids didn’t have anything, and they were all looking at me like, ‘Huh?’ I didn’t know what to say. And if I was them, I wouldn’t want to listen.”


He fielded telephone interviews en route to an appearance at the Accelerated School, a South L.A. charter. “The secondary students promised to get straight A’s if he would visit,” said Jonathan Williams, the school’s co-director and founder. “As you can see, they succeeded.”

Brown’s visit clocked in at just under 10 minutes, but that couldn’t diminish the ardor of his fans. “We got hugs from him,” said Jasmine Brown, 17. “My heart is beating so fast right now!”

Next obligation: an in-store appearance at the Glendale franchise of his tour’s corporate sponsor, Verizon Wireless. And after that, it was just a short hop to Burbank for his sound check at the 6,200-seat Gibson Amphitheatre. Brown pulled into the parking lot around 4 p.m. -- an hour and a half late. The upshot? According to a manager for House of Blues Concerts Inc., the show’s promoter, all 10 acts on the roster would get off to an unusually tardy start.

Brown was hustled inside to block moves for one of his concert set pieces with a five-member troupe of krumpers -- practitioners of a dance style that combines break-dancing and martial arts movements. The singer-dancer took special care to help Miles Brown, 8 (no relation), to nail his moves, dancing in an aggressive affront to the other dancers before flipping acrobatically onto his back.

“I want to be a role model -- to tell kids to believe they can be something when they’re older,” the elder Brown said. “That they can follow their dreams and still be good. Innocence is good.”

But a certain weary resignation set in as Brown hunkered down in a cordoned VIP section at the Gibson for a meet-and-greet session with about 100 fans. Some had won the opportunity to meet Brown through radio-station prize giveaways; others were randomly selected members of the local chapter of his fan club. But the first 10 paid $382 each for the “gold package” offered on the Up Close and Personal Tour website. That price covered a signed 8x10 glossy and a chance to pose for a snapshot with Brown. Total face time with him: less than 20 seconds per person.

“I got cussed out by my mom for spending so much,” said gold package buyer Gabby George, 17. “But it was well worth it. You see how fine he is?”

It had been a long day. But battling back from weariness, Brown, dressed in a white suit pants-vest-shirt-sneaker ensemble, bounded onto the stage about 11:15 -- well past bedtime for many of the tween-age kids in the audience. Most of the crowd remained on its feet throughout the show, singing along with his songs and screaming wildly at the singer-dancer’s every pelvic thrust.

By 12:30 a.m., near the end of his set, several of the teen crooner’s youngest fans in the balcony gave in to fatigue. One of them, Regia Carver, 5, nestled peacefully in mother Donita Carver’s arms, lulled to sleep by urban-edged R&B; lullabies of pop’s new prince.