Soul Surreal 

R&B sensation Chris Brown amps up his talent with technology.

By popular R&B standards, Chris Brown's 2005 radio hit "Run It" was brilliant: the singer oozed over a big, chunky dance beat that propelled him to the song's swooningly melodramatic bridge, and vowed, seductively, that you'd never believe he was just sixteen. Since, he has dropped the equally successful songs "Gimme That," "Kiss Kiss," and "Wall to Wall," all of which combine peppy backing tracks with singing that's unctuous, melismatic, and filled with double entendre. Because he can actually sing, Brown has managed to remain a hit whereas most of his ilk make it to the radio once and go the way of Los del Rio. The artist presents himself as a disciple of Prince and Michael Jackson, and for the most part, he can justify the comparison.

But you wouldn't really know that from watching a recent, nearly sold-out show at Oakland's ORACLE Arena, which emphasized fancy pyrotechnics and Vegas-style chorus lines over actual singing. Entirely mediated by technology, the show was visceral and in-your-face enough to give the illusion of intimacy — hence its unintentionally ironic title, the "Up Close and Personal Tour." In addition to gunfire sound effects and flashy stage sets, it featured virtual guest appearances by Rihanna, T-Pain, and Lil' Wayne, who performed in video form. Being there was tantamount to stepping inside a Chris Brown music video: the assaultive hip-hop backbeats caused little girls to cover their ears, parents winced whenever a fiery geyser erupted from the stage. In fact, the only thing missing was the music — which might not have mattered, given that the mostly teenage crowd came up in an era of DJs and backing tracks, and probably had never seen a live band, anyway.

The two opening acts, Jamaican-American crooner Sean Kingston and SoundClick.com phenom Soulja Boy Tell Em, had little to offer in terms of musical depth, either. After Kingston's fifteen-minute opening set, wiry seventeen-year-old Soulja Boy catapulted on stage to perform his signature hit, which is not only the most popular song on KMEL, but probably the most honest portrayal of American rap music's current cultural mores: Soulja Boy up/In dis ho/Watch me crank it/Watch me roll/Watch me crank dat Soulja Boy/den Super Man dat ho. It's probably what the troops in Baghdad are listening to on their iPods. Whilst singing, Soulja Boy did his signature dance — a kind of slowed-down krump style that had him bopping from side to side, doing a flappy Roger Rabbit thing with his arms. The Superman reference came with its own special move, in which Soulja Boy swooped down onstage with outstretched arms, like a beautiful swan.

But the show really belonged to Brown and Bow Wow. The latter started his 55-minute set with a wallop, descending from the top of the stage in a giant aircraft with butterfly doors. Skinny, shrimpy, twenty-year-old Bow Wow resembled a wannabe vato in his wifebeater T-shirts and royal blue bandanna (he started out in a black-and-yellow postal uniform and went through several costume changes), but he held court nonetheless, posing for cell phone pictures mid-song, joshing with his hype man, and prancing around the stage with a chorus line of Ciara-lookalikes. Also featuring a guest appearance by Bay Area titan E-40, the set closed with a commercial shown on two giant video screens for Face Off, Bow Wow's current collaboration with Top 40 crooner Omarion.

Brown's entrance took roughly ten minutes, starting with a four-minute commercial projected on several giant video screens for Sync, a Microsoft voice-activated phone and digital car stereo made exclusively for Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln vehicles. Then came an animated superhero sequence in which a cartoon Brown had to rescue a beautiful woman from a rogue group of "haters" and still make it to the show on time, his cell phone bleating SOS warnings all the while. Brown floated down from the rafters in black fatigues and a bullet-proof vest, his dance squad positioned behind him like a row of Rhythm Nation cadets. They launched a spectacular, Disneynified performance complete with a cameo from Bay Area rapper Keak da Sneak; giant screensaver projections; and special break-dance sets by Brown's sidekicks, nine-year-old Miles and eleven-year-old Scooter (who also busted a cute but seemingly interminable rap of his own). Midway through his set, Brown and two hype men left the stage and magically reappeared on a rotating, melon-shaped platform in the middle of the coliseum. Girls gazed adoringly as they performed a lurid version of Brown's "First Time," complete with dry-hump moves. Parents and boyfriends in the audience looked comatose.

Amid all this high-tech spectacle, the music seemed like an afterthought. Brown performed with a live drummer and DJ, but the rest of his band — an arsenal of horns, keyboardists, and string players — appeared on video only, the screens stacked in chic vertical panels. In fact, the different band members were actually Brown in multiple guises, faking all the instruments. Brown did a duet with Rihanna, who appeared as a life-size video, and launched a break-dance battle with a video version of himself. Even his voice seemed canned, especially in the moments when he pulled the microphone away from his mouth but retained a crystalline, full-toned sound.

It's still not clear whether Brown actually lip-synched his entire set. Perhaps the only people who noticed — or cared, for that matter — were the curmudgeonly old folks who could remember a time when slick dance moves and hyphy DJ mixes didn't steal the show. For a generation raised on Autotune software, regurgitated samples, and live shows that spawn from the same KMEL playlists heard all day on the radio, authenticity isn't that big of a deal. The thing that elicited most applause that night was a mix of 2004 throwbacks spun by Brown's DJ Babey Drew.

Apparently, what makes a good R&B show these days is the quality of the presentation. If the star appears "up close and personal" — albeit through the filter of an Imation or a video screen — then old-style musicianship need not apply. But if Brown's career stays on track, he'll perhaps overcome the mediocrity of hip-hop and R&B. You might come for the spectacle initially, but in the end, you'll stay for the talent.

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