Baby Ballers

What's a soon-to-be-forgotten don to do as his star fades and his gold teeth lose their luster? If you're Master P, the big bad slurring mouth of the South, you do what's only right: Shell out thousands of dollars for the right to loop the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," add a basic drum pattern to it, and let your 11-year-old son, unfortunately dubbed Lil' Romeo, rhyme over it, not only to kickstart the prepubescent kid's rap career but also to reenergize your own dormant empire.

Welcome to kiddie rap as business strategy, the latest maneuver in a line of rapping child-labor exploitation that dates back almost as far as hip-hop itself. Just as in other sweatshops where kids toil for unceasing hours at banal repetitive tasks, unhappiness seems to come with the territory. Just check out the video for young Romeo's single, "My Baby." In it, he's got everything a boy-to-man could want—cheerleading girls with shirts spelling his name, a huge party thrown in his honor, and a helicopter to whisk him away when the mob gets out of control. But there's hardly a flicker of joy on the young boy's face as he robotically dances his way through the video, and even more robotically raps his way through the song he probably had no hand in writing. He may be freaked out by the Michael Jackson impersonator prowling around the set, but what should be carefree fun is instead sapped of life. Big things notwithstanding, it's hard work being Lil' Romeo.

P's been cultivating Romeo for years, having given his seed an early taste of the rap life as a member of the post-fetal rap duo Lil' Soldiers. But Romeo's solo turn isn't wholly organic. His immediate, stunning, baffling ascent to the top of the Billboard hip-hop charts (two weeks running so far) would have been impossible without that other bandanna-wavin', faux-crip-walkin', cornrow-rockin' munchkin of a rhyme slinger, Lil' Bow Wow.

And look what Bow Wow hath wrought. If he weren't so embarrassed by his fellow grade-schooler's lack of charm, he'd probably demand a 20 percent finder's fee for the style that Romeo's trying to bite. Word is that the two bad creations are looking for a film project to star in together. Sure, but while two tots are better than one, the real star power in that duet belongs to the puppyfied player. Though his debut album is almost a year old, Lil' Bow Wow and his accompanying phenomenon continue to blossom at a blistering pace. MTV salivates over him. BET follows him around as if he might negotiate a Middle East peace treaty on tour.

But most importantly, there are the girls. Like Romeo, Bow Wow's got a bunch of teenyboppers in his videos, chasing him and offering him all sorts of things that naughty babies shouldn't do. But that mania appears to be spilling over into real life. Press accounts of being out in public with him read like something from the Beatles files. Girls attack his chauffeured car. At mall appearances, he has to be literally hoisted away on a bodyguard's shoulder. As he told a journalist colleague of mine in a more subdued moment, "Sometimes I just want to be home, riding my bike."

It's a hard-knock life for a kid who counts both Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri as mentors. In their collective rush for commodification, no one stopped to consider that maybe Bow Wow just wanted to be a kid for a little while longer. It's classic child-star pathology, seen in everyone from Frankie Lymon to Todd Bridges. What makes these latter-day hip-hop cases even more reprehensible is that the speed races past puberty are practically plotted in advance by experienced hustlers who know that in an already bloated rap landscape, novelty is key.

That's not to say that kids have never been used as strategic pawns before. Roxanne Shante was but a teen when Marley Marl scooped her up for "Roxanne's Revenge," as was Foxy Brown when she first appeared on LL Cool J's "I Shot Ya" remix. Jermaine Dupri even has a bit of a kidsploitation history, what with his discovery and promotion of Kris Kross. Hell, a decade ago, kid rappers were almost as popular as they are now, what with the sartorially dyslexic Kross beefing with the Michael Bivins-supported nursery school called Another Bad Creation. And let's not even explore the relationship between Redman and Illegal, or between Michael Jackson and Quo.

See, of all the kid rappers, the one I admire most was LL Cool J. Sure, he's bloated and corny now, but 17 years ago he was the best thing going in hip-hop, a cocky 16-year-old from Queens who knew what he wanted so badly that he sent demos out—on his own, I should add—to all the rap luminaries of the day, however few they were. Def Jam signed him, of course, and while their empire may have been built on the back of the underage LL, they exploited him not because he was a kid but because he was the freshest MC on the block. And he wrote his own rhymes, too.

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