First, there was Biggie. Then came Missy. Followed by Nelly, Chingy, Nitty and Smitty. Let's not forget Puff Daddy and 50 Cent shortening their handles to P. Diddy and Fiddy, the former even permanently. Notice a pattern? If not, maybe you will see one in the following sequence: Lil' Flip, Lil' Kim, Lil' Wayne, Lil' Romeo, Lil' Cease, Lil' Zane, Lil' Jon, Lil' Whyte, Lil' Scrappy, Lil' Troy, Lil' Keke. The list, as you're probably aware, goes on. Maybe the rap game is indeed a fountain of youth, considering how today many of its dominant figures are well in their thirties yet are still able to connect with the kids. Or maybe hip-hop simply discovered petiteness as a marketing ploy, realizing that as with so many brand products, it's all in the name. In which case it would be wrong to assume that the aforementioned are all cute and cuddly or make particularly endearing music. Someone who once succeeded at being and doing all of the above was Lil' Bow Wow, who debuted in 2000 at the tender age of 13 with "Beware of Dog." By the time he was ready to release his third album, he felt mature enough to drop the belittling diminutive and has henceforth simply been known as Bow Wow. "Wanted" is his fourth album in five years, reuniting him with mentor Jermaine Dupri after the guest producer parade of "Unleashed."
As if to celebrate his coming of age, "Wanted" contains "Eighteen" from "Unleashed" as a hidden bonus track. "I'm on a mission now, I'm in transition now," he knew back then, eagerly awaiting his 18th birthday. That day came on March 9th this year, with the effect that some of the songs on this album were recorded by a minor, others by an adult. Always heeling his prominent doggfather, who went from Snoop DOGGY Dogg to BIG Snoop Dogg, Bow Wow longs for the day the big dogs accept him as their peer. The difference is that Snoop, ever since he first wished "187 on a undercover cop" in 1992, could always be held accountable as an adult. Bow Wow on the other hand can only hope that his teen audience has matured with him and has yet to grow into the role of an adult rapper. How does he fare? Well, "Wanted" opens up with a crowd of kids chanting "Bow Wow! Bow Wow!" So much for a first impression. "106 & Park ain't been the same since I had it / so I'm back at it," he begins, but just when you think it's business as usual for Bow Weezy, he decides to teach the rappers following in his footsteps a lesson, because "imitators mimick but them guys is sloppy." Why settle for a copy when you can have the original is his argument. And apparently, the fans agree: "Who else you gon' roll with, the future is me / Only young'uns that's movin' units is - uhm, me." He continues:
"Not just the rap game, the whole industry's the same
everybody wanna look and sound like the next mane
But I'm definite, there ain't another me
and I'm So So Definite, back with JD"
You could call it the Emancipation of Bow Wow were it not for the fact that that very same JD is back at it again, writing lyrics for one of his prodigious protegées. Now ghostwriting is a reality in rap music, and with Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow we're dealing with the usual suspects. But don't you think that when you're so eager to grow up, when you spend so much time talking about the money you make, the cars you drive ("Phantom with the suicide do's"!), the jewelry you wear, when you're on your fourth album and you talk down on others because they lack originality - that you should write your own rhymes? That would be a true sign of maturity, much more than the sudden surge of sexual prowess as displayed on "Do What it Do":
"A nigga 18 now, you ain't know?
If you touch me like you did when we was kids - oh-oh
It's on, it's on, I'ma take you home
I'm grown, I'm grown, I make you moan"
Oh, in case you didn't catch it, "Wanted" marks the introduction of the "N" word into the Bow Wow vocabulary. It's on 8 tracks out of 12, he says it 16 times in 47 minutes. Interestingly, he won't use it on the only self-written song, "B.O.W." Produced by Lil Ronnie und Bow himself, "B.O.W." is one of the better offerings here, a catchy but not corny hook, a beat resonating with a strong boom-clack-boom, a fresh flow enunciating elevated lyrics. "Fresh Azimiz" comes close despite its Jermaine involvement, with another good hook benefitting from guest vocals from JD and J-Kwon. "Caviar" is the inevitable Snoop cameo, and while he seems unaware that he's on a Bow Wow song, talking about "shootin' niggas down, slappin' bitches up," Bow manages to steal the show with "If you paid like I'm paid / then your cribs came with the maids / and if they didn't, then you slippin' / Catch up, about the time you do, I probably do it different."
Maybe I find it hard to shake the image of the adorable kid he once was, but at least to me it seems that the Bow Wow sans the Lil' still fares better when he sticks to family-friendly music. Early on, "Big Dreams" finds approval, as he portrays three people who gave in to temptation and consequently had to give up on their dreams - the aspiring athlete forsaking his hoop dreams for street dreams, the singer who has already signed the dotted line when her no-good boyfriend takes her down with him, and the uncle who's a drug addict catching AIDS. Not even Dupri and LRoc's utterly cheap-sounding drums, keys and strings can't change the fact that this is a very important song. With the help of No ID JD handles "Let Me Hold You" succesfully, and it would be a surprise if the cleverly incorporated sped-up soul sample, Bow Wow's emphatic lyrics and the guest vocals by B2K lead singer Omarion wouldn't result in a hit. The same goes for the duet with his current love interest Ciara, "Like You." Simplistic, sappy, but okay. With the puppy love being taken care of, there are also moments of rather straightforward sexual innuendo ("If you pet me nowadays, girl, the dog is pokin'"). Something Bow Wow is probably entitled to, but which still somehow rubs me wrong. Here is a rapper who would have had the chance to carve out a niche for himself, but finds himself at the verge of turning into the kind of rapper we already have enough of. It is very likely that Bow Wow is "hypnotizin' these hoes like they gone off that lean," but that doesn't necessarily mean that he has to put it that way. Yamean?
As for good old Jermaine Dupri, it looks like he finally lost it. Every single beat on "Wanted" is generic down to the gristle, from the bounce derivative "Fresh Azimiz" to "Do You," a coloring book presentation with token bass strings, a cheesy rock guitar and mystifying singing. Even his assistants LRoc and Bryan Michael Cox can't get him out of the mess that "Wanted" ultimately turns out to be. They're certainly no match for Carl So-Lowe, who helped keep JD's production game fresh in the latter half of the '90s. "Go" owes to Chubb Rock's "Treat 'Em Right," but the original is so obscured by the stiff interpolation that you wonder why they even bothered to cite it as a source. The same goes for "Is That You (P.Y.T.)," which has little to do with the Michael Jackson template. There was a time when everything Jermaine Dupri touched turned platinum. While Bow Wow may still be a highly marketable rapper, as his writer and producer Dupri is simply tampering with the young man's career. Bow Wow in turn should worry less about what he owns than how (and if) he earns it. Just five years ago, there was something extremely confidential about this kid's delivery and his overall demeanor. In 2005, the former boy wonder has become a wholly unspectacular rapper. With "Wanted," he's still 'in transition', chances for a turnaround are still intact, but the way things are looking Bow Wow is speeding down a dead-end street. Well, at least he does so in a Phantom Rolls.
Music Vibes: 5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 4 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 4.5 of 10
Originally posted: August 23, 2005