The screaming girls at Sunday night's Chris Brown concert at 1st Mariner Arena could probably have drowned out the roar of the fans at the Ravens-Colts game just down the road.
And for good reason: The arena crowd saw a better show.
In a tightly choreographed and expertly executed 90-minute performance, Brown displayed the dance skills, stage presence and winning personality that have set pop-culture prognosticators buzzing about his possible ascent into super-stardom.
If Brown isn't yet a household name, his Up Close and Personal Holiday Exclusive Tour stop in Baltimore made a convincing case that someday he might be. Despite being on just his second major tour after he was plucked from obscurity in Tappahannock, Va., the 18-year-old controlled the stage like an old pro, opening his set by simply standing expressionless at center stage and letting the deafening peal of teenage and tween girls pour over him for a moment.
Then, as he stepped back to join his 10 backup dancers, he cracked a broad, seemingly genuine smile as he launched into his recent single "Wall To Wall," with its highly appropriate lyric, "I don't hear nothing but ladies calling."
As Brown enjoys his rise to increasing celebrity, he's thrilling his young audience every step of the way. The nearly sold-out arena crowd consisted mostly of girls ranging from elementary- to high school-age - and their mothers - who erupted at the start of each of Brown's four-set pieces and sang and danced along throughout the evening. A few moms could even be spotted mouthing lyrics.
The well-paced production featured two bits in which Brown and his dancers donned all-black, Mission: Impossible-style special ops suits, complete with utility belts and rappelling cables. Brown initially took the stage by descending from the ceiling after monitors showed a CG version of the star battling "Haters" and eventually a dragon in a video game-inspired opening.
In another clever bit of high-tech stagecraft, Brown was accompanied on stage by a digitally projected video of Rihanna, whose image appeared on a small scrim during the duet "Umbrella (Remix)."
But the show's sense of spectacle was held in check as the focus remained squarely on the young man and his music. Brown comfortably glided in and out of step with his dancers throughout the show, alternately serving as the point man in choreographed segments and trolling the stage with the free rein of a seasoned hip-hop emcee. His aggressive pop-and-lock moves remained sharp throughout the evening, which climaxed appropriately with his 2005 debut single "Run It!" and the equally catchy current hit "Kiss Kiss."
The only thing missing - apart from co-headliner Bow Wow, whose absence was attributed to an "unexpected illness" - was Brown the singer, as his performance relied heavily on lip-synching. It's a minor and perhaps forgivable gripe, given that his dancing is often so complex as to prohibit voice projection, but one that is unfortunately and ironically underscored by the show's corporate sponsor: Ford Focus with Sync.
While Brown's talents as a singer and dancer have drawn comparisons to Michael Jackson in his heyday, his charismatic stage presence and ladies'-man charm evokes another music icon in LL Cool J. No doubt cognizant of the parallel, Brown donned a green and yellow Adidas track suit and floppy hat - an instantly recognizable LL Cool J look - for an '80s set piece ripped straight from Breakin'. To lead off this dance battle he played portions of LL Cool J's "I Can't Live Without My Radio," a 1985 song that's older than Brown himself.
As he channels these legendary predecessors, Brown manages to stay grounded, and some of the show's smaller touches revealed a generosity of spirit uncommon among hip-hop stars. In between set pieces, Brown's DJ ran the show and allowed the backup dancers to take center stage.
Two young boys, introduced as Miles and Scooter (the latter identified as a Baltimore native), performed their own freestyle breakdowns, captivating the crowd despite being only 8 or 9 years old.
As the show closed, Brown's DJ declared him "the Prince of R&B." But if Brown aims to inherit that throne, he might want to watch his back. Opening acts Lil Mama, Shop Boyz and Soulja Boy appeared in quick succession to start the night, and each had fans screaming.
Even pint-sized Scooter had already begun to work up his charm with the ladies. Amid lyrics about homework and mean sixth graders, he nonetheless tugged up his T-shirt and warned the squealing audience, "I ain't got a girl; I'm a flirt, I'm a flirt!"