Spotlight

Spotlight on Chris Brown

The ''Exclusive'' triple-threat is ready to become the next Michael Jackson

Deep within a Burbank rehearsal studio, Chris Brown is giving his version of a PowerPoint presentation. With his choreographers and tour manager sprawled out on the floor like kindergartners during story time, the R&B singer pops and locks through his vision for his upcoming arena tour. Song by song, Brown barks out distinct ideas and concepts. Goofy costumes. Video projections. Even martial arts. ''I want it to be like theater,'' the tireless 18-year-old proclaims. Brown's limbs move like pipe cleaners, twisting and flowing from one set-up to the next, fluid yet precise. His enthusiasm is unwavering, even after weeks of promoting his second album, Exclusive. (The funky single ''Kiss Kiss,'' featuring T-Pain, is already topping the pop charts.) But he won't slow down now. After all, Chris Brown is on the brink of music superstardom.

Raised in teeny-tiny Tappahannock, Va. (pop. 2,000), Brown bounced onto the radar in 2005 with his self- titled debut album, which earned him two Grammy nods, including Best New Artist. But it was his performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in September that elevated him to the next level. While Britney Spears stupefied the crowd, barely moving her legs, Brown dazzled, leaping from table to table and flying over the heads of awestruck audience members like Diddy and Kid Rock. ''That moment brought it home,'' says Mark Pitts, who signed Brown to Zomba's Urban Music group. ''People who just liked him now love him, and people who didn't get it get him now.'' Brown is more modest about his triumphant routine. ''I just had a lot to prove,'' he explains. ''So when I got out there I was like, Lemme show you what I could really do.''

This month finds the singer launching a full-court press on fans, releasing Exclusive (this week), costarring in the holiday comedy This Christmas with Regina King (out Nov. 21), and prepping his first headlining tour (which begins Dec. 12). But the lanky teen is trying to manage expectations. ''I'm about to start getting to my prime,'' he says. ''Like when Michael Jackson had Off the Wall, people started recognizing what he could do.'' Spend any time with Brown, and Jackson will come up in conversation. That's the artist whose career Brown most envies and to whom he's most often compared. The similarities are there: Both boast jaw-dropping dance moves and smooth falsettos. ''I hope I can be the next Michael Jackson,'' he says. ''He made music that's for every age. It's right in the middle so everyone can have it.''

If Brown wants to appeal to everyone, there's a good reason why: For all his success, he knows what it's like at the other end of the spectrum. ''One of my best friends has three kids,'' he says. ''A couple of my friends are in jail.'' Brown now takes a somewhat paternal role in helping his childhood pals. ''I try to keep all my friends not in order, but I try to keep them straight.'' He's almost preternaturally mature — and business-savvy — for a guy who wasn't old enough to vote until this past May. When asked why he signed on for Christmas, he cops, ''Marketing-wise it's great because the album comes out now, then the movie comes out, and then the tour. So everything blends in.'' Even his explanation of the girl-crazy Exclusive feels like that of a weathered music veteran. ''I wanted to do something that was easiest to talk about: females. Especially with an R&B pop song, I didn't want to go talkin' about world peace and destruction. I'll wait until my third or fourth album when I'm older so it would be believable.'' But when he interrupts the interview three times to point out a lingering hummingbird, one gets a glimpse of the kid who spent his days playing basketball and listening to Kris Kross...until the irrepressible pro kicks back in. ''I love this more than anything. If I could have done this earlier in my career, like at 10 or 11 years old, I would have and I would have kept doing it.''


Playing Telephone
Turns out Chris Brown is fairly easy to get ahold of — at least if you're one of his idols

1. USHER
Before Brown had signed with Jive/Zomba, Island/Def Jam chairman L.A. Reid urged the R&B singer to ring up the youngster to woo him to their label. Says Brown, who now considers Usher a friend, ''I was like, 'Thank you, bro. I'm still not signing with [Reid].'''
2. MICHAEL JACKSON
The Gloved One himself called Brown shortly after his 18th birthday to deliver some inspirational words. ''He was like, 'Don't ever give up. Just dream big. Always think you can be anything you want to be.'''
3. R. KELLY
While performing in Chicago, Brown and pal Bow Wow were invited by the Trapped in the Closet auteur to play some hoops. ''He can ball. He's a real guy. He's Rob when there's no cameras.''

Originally posted Nov 09, 2007 Published in issue #964 Nov 16, 2007 Order article reprints