Chris Brown: Pop's Great Hope?

Teens are hanging out the third-story windows of the Los Angeles Leadership Academy charter school waving frantically. If they didn't look so ecstatic, you'd swear they were trying to escape from a blazing fire. But instead of yelling for help, they're screaming "Chris, up here! Chris!" The object of their flaming desire is singer Chris Brown, 18, who's posing for photos on the school's basketball court. The 6-foot-2 entertainer glides with amazing ease around the court—rolling the ball across his shoulder blades from one fingertip to the other, busting dance moves that seem as natural as breathing, singing Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock" to the bouncing beat of the ball. He's a showman, the likes of whom we haven't seen since "Thriller"-era Michael Jackson. Which is why everyone in the school—rockers, rappers, punks, R&Bers, dweebs and, yes, even teachers who claim to be wrangling students—can't help but ogle him, and why one student on the third floor screams, "Billie Jean's not your lover, but I will be!" A teacher pulls her in and slams the window shut.

That's a switch—Brown's long and somewhat odd association with Jackson usually opens windows for him. When the R&B/hip-hop/pop artist performed a medley of "Billie Jean" and two singles off his new record "Exclusive" at this year's Video Music Awards, it was the most- talked-about moment of the show—aside from the unveiling of Britney's jelly roll. "Whatever Chris Brown just did reminded me of how I'm getting older," said Justin Timberlake, all of 26, after Brown's performance. The music world wasn't the only place that took notice of Brown's leap from teen heartthrob to budding superstar. Sony Pictures offered him a three-picture deal (not including his first feature role in "This Christmas," which opens Wednesday). Even Jackson came out of hiding to call Brown "a bright and shining star." Just like that, the King of Pop's dusty throne now has a foreseeable heir, which is no small feat in an ailing music industry that yields plenty of iTunes sensations and precious few icons. "Of course I think the comparisons are great and flattering," says Brown, smiling, flashing a row of straight teeth where there were recently braces. "Nowadays, we don't have a Michael like we did back in the day, or a James Brown, or an Elvis; artists people really go crazy for. I'd love to turn into that, but I only just started."

Brown was doing what he always does with his free time—rapping and dancing—at his dad's gas station in Tappahannock, Va., when local talent scouts discovered him six years ago. He was self-taught then, and still is. His dancing—a sort of soul infused acrobatics that defy the laws of physics and basic anatomy—feels completely spontaneous. The same is true of his music, even though it's highly produced. It's not that Brown's the best singer out there, but he's certainly the most exciting. "Exclusive," his second album, came out two weeks ago and it's already surpassed early sales of his three-times platinum debut. And now that he's of legal age, Brown says he can sing about "adult things" like "making love" on his new CD.

Brown's never really played into the role of squeaky-clean teen idol: he's tattooed up and down both arms—Jesus on one side, a skull and halo on the other. But he's also never played street thug to gain fans. Like Jackson, he's used fancy footwork and dazzling performances to pull in all camps, and it really does seem like Brown is only just getting started. But just how plausible is mega success in a music industry that banks on "American Idols" and singles where the production, not the artist, drive the song? Record labels are hoping he'll bust the theory that catalog artists—the ones whose albums will sell 25 years from now—are a thing of the past. It's a lot to shoulder, so Brown is focusing on—well, his arms. "I'll stop getting tattoos," he says, pulling down the sleeves of his sweat jacket. "I don't want to scare off my audience. But I did just get a new one. See it? Behind my ear?" And right behind his giant diamond stud is a smattering of blue stars.

When Brown takes his body art on the road for his "Exclusive" tour (it kicks off Dec. 6), the audience will see more than stars. Brown has more facial hair now than he did two years ago, more beef on his lanky frame and a lower voice—though he's only just moved out of his mother's Virginia home and all the way down the street. "Like all moms, she's, like, 'I don't want my little baby to grow up.' It's, like, 'Mom! Whatever.' I guess because I started out so young, I have to remind everyone around me I'm not 15 anymore." Says the boy who would be king.

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