R& B's Omarion: On His Own and Loving It

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

On Dec. 30, 2003, Omarion played his last concert with chart-topping urban boy band B2K at DAR Constitution Hall. At the time, no one, including Omarion, knew it would be B2K's last concert; Washington was just one of the last stops on another sold-out tour.

The end came a day later when Omarion was the only group member to show up for a Philadelphia concert, as simmering internal tensions finally reached a critical stage. As a result, it turned out to be his solo debut, albeit not the way he had expected.

"I totally forgot I was going to be there" in Washington around the anniversary of that concert, Omarion said over the phone from Atlanta, where "Scream Tour 5" was stopping over before shows Saturday -- another Dec. 30 -- at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore and Sunday at Verizon Center.

"It brings back a lot of old memories," says Omarion, diplomatically suggesting those memories are both good and bad. "Now I can totally rock the house and redeem myself from how I felt back then, because I don't think we performed well that day."

That must have bugged the singer-dancer-actor, who headlined last year's "Scream" tour (a.k.a. "The Heartthrobs" tour) with pal Bow Wow, best bud Marques Houston, Bobby Valentino, Pretty Ricky and B5. This year's edition of the BET-sponsored tour, billed as "Ruff & Ready, Young & Sexy," finds Omarion headlining with dancer-romancer Ne-Yo, Mario, Sammie, One Chance, rapper Yung Joc, Pretty Ricky and Jibbs, the 15-year-old from St. Louis whose "Chain Hang Low" was one of this year's top cellphone ring tones.

Omarion himself was 15 when he went out on the first "Scream" tour with B2K (the tour was named for the consistent, high-decibel audience reaction). At 22 -- 1 1/2 months past the symbolic age celebrated on his sophomore solo album, released Tuesday -- Omarion could almost be considered the senior citizen on this teen extravaganza, a suggestion he genially laughs off.

"Not the senior citizen but definitely the veteran in the sense that I've been on every 'Scream' tour there is, so it really feels good, and I'm really comfortable with the guys that are running it. They take care of me, and it's fun."

Which is one of the reasons he feels no need to become a mentor to youngsters like Jibbs.

"Nah, I don't really give anybody advice," Omarion says. "The backstage environment is pretty mellow and chillin', with the exception of [brother act] Pretty Ricky, because those guys are pretty energized. Everybody's pretty mature and cool acting."

That's a pretty good description of "21," an album that's reminiscent of Janet Jackson's "Control" or, going back further, Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life," in which young artists began taking more control over the content and direction of their careers.

"It played out wonderfully," Omarion says. "It was, 'Yes, I want to do this record. . . . No, I don't really like this, let's try something else,' and not having everybody look at you with a raised eyebrow, like, 'He doesn't really know what he's talking about.' But I've been doing this since I was 15, and, for me, it was good to be able to make a suggestion or to have a comment or a question and not be overlooked; when I was a little younger, if I said something, they might not have taken it as seriously or into consideration."

A successful three-year run in B2K with Raz-B, Lil Fizz and J-Boog began to fray in 2003, when Omarion ended up as the co-star, with Houston, in the film "You Got Served," a surprise hit about crews battle-dancing in Los Angeles; his bandmates were also well featured, but apparently Omarion was singled out for solo stardom by the group's then manager, Chris Stokes. Stokes, who managed Houston's old group, Immature (later IMx), and still manages Omarion, wrote and directed "You Got Served." Of course, boy bands do grow up and very frequently splinter, so the breakup wasn't a huge surprise, though the hard words directed toward Omarion and Stokes by the others made it even more dramatic. (Things are reportedly patched up on the friendship level these days.)

Omarion made his solo debut in 2005 with "O," which opened at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. The singer addressed the B2K breakup in "Growing Pains," as well as in his concurrently released book, "O." The idea of such a young performer writing his autobiography may seem presumptuous (at least he didn't title it "The Story of O"), but the MTV Books publication turned out to be a surprisingly candid and thoughtful look at his growing up in Inglewood, Calif., in a loving family and his early aspirations to an entertainment career: Before he ever tried singing, the youngster, known as Omari Grandberry, did local theater and national commercials for McDonald's and Kellogg's Corn Pops ("Gotta have my Pops").

If "O" seemed a conscious move away from B2K's smooth R&B pop, with the occasional misstep into "adult" lyrics, "21" is the work of a singer (and more involved lyricist) with more traditional romantic interests. For instance, the album's first single, "Entourage," asks a potential girlfriend not to be " in my entourage," but to " be my entourage." "Made for TV" addresses fame, but in unexpected ways, as Omarion insists, "I don't want something that's made for TV / I'd rather fall in love with something that's made for me."

The album serves up Michael Jackson-style dance tracks ("Entourage," "Do It," "Obsession"), slow jams ("Just Can't Let You Go," "Been With a Star") and playfully sexy but not sexual come-ons ("Midnight," "Just That Sexy," "What Are We Doing"). Most of the album was made with producers the Underdogs, but other contributors include Pharrell Williams and Timbaland, who produced the current single, "Ice Box."

As with Usher, the Jackson comparison is actually a good reference point for a young artist known as much for his street-bred dance prowess as for his music.

"It's very important to my career," Omarion says of his energized dancing. "That was something Michael Jackson had: the ability to excite people differently than the next person could. He could just move his arm, and it was ' Wow!' I want to be able to excite people in that way and have them say, 'I wonder what Omarion's going to do next,' because it challenges me. At the same time, it makes my whole entertainment spontaneous."

Which is why it wasn't that much of challenge for Omarion to bring his dance steps -- both smooth and crazy -- to "You Got Served." It opened as the No. 1 film during the 2004 Super Bowl weekend, so it shouldn't be a surprise that a sequel is in the works, merely awaiting a script. Acting has become a major aspect of the singer's career, from 2004's "Fat Albert" (in which Omarion played Reggie) to the recently finished Jennifer Lopez-produced "Reggaeton," in which Omarion plays a kid from the Bronx who dreams about making it as a rapper until a run-in with local thugs forces him to hide in Puerto Rico, where he discovers the father, and the currently hot music, he never knew.

"We just finished in Puerto Rico, and it's gonna be nice," Omarion says. He's also started a film production company, Rock Star Films, with Houston. Its first release, scheduled for March 16, will be "Somebody Help Me," a horror film "kinda like 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' and 'Scream' for the young people," Omarion explains. Written and directed by Stokes, it will feature Omarion and Houston, who have been frequent collaborators in films and on television (on the old UPN's "Cuts" and "One on One"). The two have worked together so often -- they'll also co-star in Tyger Williams's ("Menace II Society") upcoming "Street Soldier" -- they're sometimes identified as brothers. They're not, but, Omarion says, "that's definitely my brother from another mother. He mentors me; he's a really good guy. In the days of B2K, he really helped us a lot."

Though it would seem his dance card is pretty full, Omarion says "there's still a lot out there, a lot of things business-wise, that I want to do that I haven't been able to do yet. I feel good, and I feel really, really blessed to have had longevity in the industry as long as I have. But I can't ever stop staying hungry because there's always something new, something fresh, always something somebody else is doing, so I'm constantly thinking of creative stuff."

Including having his own video game.

"I'm a gamer myself," he says, and someone who clearly knows how to play the game. Omarion's last words before signing off are a reminder that "21" has just arrived in stores. "Everybody go out and pick up a copy of that."

'Scream Tour 5' with Omarion, Ne-Yo, Mario, Sammie, One Chance, Yung Joc, Pretty Ricky and Jibbs Appearing Saturday at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore and Sunday at Verizon Center. Sounds like: Once you get past the screaming, it'll be mostly fresh-faced R&B with a little bit of hip-hop.

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