Bow Wow


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A lot more changed for Bow Wow between his second and third albums (Doggy Bag and Unleashed, respectively) than his name. The formerly "lil" rapper starred in a Hollywood film, Like Mike (2002), and changed labels, leaving behind the hitmaking expertise of Jermaine Dupri and So So Def Records for the free-range pastures of Columbia Records. Moreover, the teenage rapper's voice changed noticeably and he decided to project a more grown-up attitude. He also changed his musical style -- while Doggy Bag had been a grab bag of pop-rap interpolations (appropriating everything from New Edition to the Cars), Unleashed lets loose esteemed contemporary rap producers like Swizz Beatz, Jazzy Pha, and Lil Jon. The result is unsurprisingly a very contemporary-sounding album, for better or worse. Bow Wow certainly no longer sounds like the pop-rapper that he began as, now that he's rapping alongside Baby from the Big Tymers on "Let's Get Down" and spitting tough game over DMX-worthy Ruff Ryder beats on "Get It Poppin'." But that candy-coated pop-ness was what had made Bow Wow so novel in the first place -- "Bounce Wit Me" certainly wouldn't have sounded as fun as it did without a kid rapping it, nor would "Take Ya Home" have sounded so adorable had a thug-pimp rapped it. That's the dilemma faced by Bow Wow and company on Unleashed: retain the kid-rap novelty (which can only be done for so long) or succumb to genre (which is inevitable). Curiously, Unleashed wants to have it both ways. The gratuitous sex, drugs, violence, and profanity that characterize most popular rap is largely absent, yet so are the "lil" aspects that made Bow Wow so darn cute in the first place. So, what you get are songs like "Let's Get Down," which is kid-code for "Let's Get It On," and songs like "Hey Little Momma," which is a PG-rated version of Cam'ron's similarly themed (yet far more explicit) hit from the year before, "Hey Ma." For sure, Unleashed is a transitional album for Bow Wow, yet it's a satisfying one -- and an interesting one at that, as you get to hear the superstar teen carefully walk the fine line between teen pop (à la the Jackson 5) and the streets (à la 50 Cent).

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