The Long Road: The Triumph And Truth Of B2K
During The Millennium Tour, B2K members Omarion, J-Boog, Raz-B and Lil Fizz open up about their crazy 15-year journey.
Every girl remembers her first crush. Perhaps it was the little boy in kindergarten she played “House” with, or maybe it was her best friend-turned-valentine in middle school. For hundreds of thousands of millennial girls, however, their first love was probably one of the four members of hip-hop’s defiant boy band B2K. Like with all romances, feelings either evolve or dissolve; add 15 years and a reunion tour to the equation and that brooding love story becomes rejuvenated once again.
The women at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center are in heat. After years of waiting, they’re finally going to meet face to face with the men of B2K, and those crushes aren’t so innocent now. Twenty-somethings flock to the pillared arena drenched in early-2000s drip, except their garb drapes a little differently than it did nearly two decades ago. Their jersey dresses hug their silhouettes a little tighter. The ink on their spray-painted tees donning either the portrait of their favorite B2K member or a stylized script of their own name looks a tad faded. Even their once sprightly screams have transformed into hormonal cat-calls as Omarion, J-Boog, Raz-B and Lil Fizz shoot up one-by-one from hidden trap doors below the stage. The sold-out venue (est. 19,500) swells with pheromones as the quartet strikes a statuesque pose reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s iconic Super Bowl XXVII halftime moment.
The pause is breathtakingly long. One could easily get sucked into the vortex of the group’s gaze, conveniently concealed by tinted shades, but the blank space is fully occupied by shrieks to solidify this reality.
It’s been 15 years since B2K hit the stage together. Fifteen. That’s more than a decade and enough time to graduate from high school, start a “real-life” job, experience the genesis of social media and witness the end of 106 & Park. Yet, here we here.
“Girl you messed up when you let me in,” Omarion sings along to their club single, “Uh-Huh,” as the boys move in a ripple effect to the staircases on stage left and right.
The crowd joins: “Told your best friend that you wanted me / Then she called me up and hipped me to your steez / Told me that you were lookin’ for a guy like me…”
The boys erupt into a choreographed number, executing a series of sharp two-steps and pop-n-locks. Their flawless synchronization hasn’t tired. Not a step is missed as the group bobs and weaves through one another to their next mark, their all-white ensembles projecting the stage light back into the audience. The crowd doesn’t take a breath in between verses as they belt out every word to the group’s hypnotizing discography.
One of the most important things learned from shadowing B2K during the apex of their comeback is that timing is everything. While simultaneously entertaining, unpredictable and aggravating, these fleeting moments with the talk of 2019’s tour circuit—for better or for worse—will ultimately provide some type of explanation for more than a decade’s worth of unanswered questions.
Haziness aside, the band is back together and claiming their place against a cream seamless in Midtown Manhattan. It’s our first introduction to the boys one month ahead of the Jersey concert, and as seasoned artists in the game, they exhibit a strong sense of awareness of their angles and spacing. Raz-B opens his shoulders at a 45-degree angle so Fizz’s best side can absorb the light. Omarion insists on performing a portion of their stage routine in a diamond-formation of chairs so each acute motion opens a window for members in the back to catch the camera lens.
“Why have one when you can have four Chris Browns?” Lil Fizz will later quip, nodding to their iconic choreography.
Their professionalism and attention to detail keep the room full of production staff on their toes, but B2K’s boyish, around-the-way humor makes them a joy to be around. Like friends who’ve spent the greater part of their childhoods together, they are constantly in game-mode, making inappropriate wisecracks and delivering criticism with a playful burn (Raz’s second ensemble – a captain’s hat and velvet blazer – had to be changed after three-fourths of the group insisted it was too ostentatious for the vibe). That’s probably why shooting with B2K feels like a game of Wack-O-Mole.
During the course of the evening, each member alternates in and out of the Times Square studio at least four times. Omarion, the first one on set, maneuvers between snacking on a fun-size bag of chips and calculating the physics of a new spin-and-toe-kick he put together in mere seconds. In less than an eight count, O moonwalks out and Raz-B emerges in his place. Raz mixes and mingles with folks along the periphery of the set, quizzing them on the best workday, entertainment spots. Then just like that, he disappears.
A flash of anticipation boils until J-Boog arrives. He hovers over the set with business-like acumen, observing the backdrop to coordinate with his wardrobe. He nods in great thought before retreating to the dressing room for a quick shape-up. Lastly, Fizz pops up with no fair warning. It’s tough to see where his attention is as he stands in perfect silence. By the time Fizz gets acclimated, he’s already slipped away until the last hurrah.
Now, there are theories about what fragrant extracurricular activities may be transpiring as each of them waltzes back into the studio with a noticeably tranquil demeanor, but to state anything as a fact would be a variation of the truth.
There are several mutations of B2K’s story – some rumors, others exaggerations. It all depends on who tells it, but the one constant is how quickly their conception and ascension happened.
As their tale goes, the group met in 1998. At the time, Jarell Damonté “J-Boog” Houston Sr., De’Mario Monte “Raz-B” Thornton and Dreux Pierre “Lil Fizz” Frédéric were a part of a different group called Melodic. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve ‘99 that they invited Omari Ishmael “Omarion” Grandberry to join the band. (False reports claim they met at Marques Houston’s 18th birthday party, but the quartet debunked that rumor in an interview with AOL’s BUILD series.) The new quartet would call themselves B2K, an acronym for “Boys of the New Millennium,” of the “Y2K” (the year 2000) era. B2K, the final four, or as Raz will later kid, the Avengers – whatever you want to call them, it would turn out that their star power, in fact, was somewhat supernatural.
They were all inner city kids by way of Los Angeles, California. Fizz notes they “probably would have never hung out with each other” as they were from different parts of the city. Yet, some unearthly force saw the vision before them.
“Los Angeles is a melting pot for all different cultures and creativity. It’s really a ground to cultivate artists,” Omarion explains. “Life has shaped it where the fellas [the pioneering three] were already linked up together and certain family members know certain family members… This is meant to be.” (Jhene Aiko, who was marketed as Fizz’s cousin, was also their labelmate on the now-defunct TUG; Fizz and Omarion’s ex-partner, Apryl Jones, knew each other since they were teens.)
The group breached mainstream success in 2001 with their Tricky Stewart-produced debut single, “Uh Huh,” a punchy dance record with repetition too irresistible to disregard. The boys’ debut album B2K was next, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. The certified-Gold project included the follow-up releases, “Gots Ta Be” and “Why I Love You.”
By the end of the year, B2K — or rather the life-size poster versions of them, courtesy of Word Up! Magazine — were plastered on the walls and ceilings of just about every pre-teen and teen girl’s bedroom. You could even own a supplemental portrait of your favorite member: Omarion, the Scorpio; J-Boog, the Leo; Raz-B, the Gemini; and Lil Fizz, the Sag.
After embarking on Scream Tour II with Lil Bow Wow, the group returned in 2002 with their fourth single, “Bump, Bump, Bump,” an R. Kelly-penned banger featuring Diddy (the group would later announce their decision to retire songs written by Kelly after the tour due to his ongoing sexual abuse accusations). The song served as an appetizer for their 2002 sophomore project, Pandemonium!. The album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. “Bump, Bump, Bump” peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the group’s first number one hit and the last time a boy band would sit atop the chart for nearly 16 years — a record that was broken in March 2019 by the Jonas Brothers.
The new millennium wasn’t an uncommon timezone for boy bands. *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees were mainstays, but everything about B2K felt different. For starters, they were an all-black, hip-hop group that oozed a flava that couldn’t be taught. “We contributed to a type of freedom. Our style, the colors that we chose to wear, it was very unique,” Omarion explains.
The video for “Girlfriend,” directed by producer and B2K’s then-manager Chris Stokes, is a perfect illustration of what they brought to the table. It assembled an elite cast of black actors and musicians including Will Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and Ronald Isley. The visual storytelling was indicative of a black teenage saga minus the Godfather-esque kidnapping scenes, but there were several other defining factors. Their vocals possessed more attitude; their lyrics illustrated a sexual maturity; their choreography flowed with ease; their oversized velour jackets with sports bands to match appeared “rougher” than their more pop counterparts. For music executives and future pop stars, B2K’s natural vibe would be something to aspire to or even steal, but for them, it was just what being a ghetto superstar was all about.
The term “ghetto supastar” originates from Pras’ 1998 collaboration with Ol Dirty Bastard and Mya, but was reintroduced around 2002 with B2K’s hit, “Girlfriend (Remix).” The phrase carries a lot of different meanings, much like how the “F” in Weezy F. Baby stands for an array of adjectives, but Boog’s definition seems the most fitting. “I’m all for the deprived legends,” he says candidly. “I’m from Compton. Some of the greatest artists in music history come from there. So when I say ghetto superstar, it’s ‘cause there’s a million superstars there for me – football to baseball – that just never get the chance. A ghetto superstar is somebody that comes from there and was always a star.”
The height of their success, although fleeting, captured the zeitgeist of early 2000s pop culture – the retro fashion, the dynamic dance moves, and overnight stardom. The Millennium Tour is just a capsule to solidify that notion. The demand for the reunion was merciless, as they tell it. “Dang y’all still ain’t forgot about this,” Fizz remembers asking himself. They hadn’t. The three-month, spring tour has grossed $5 million and sold more than 56,542 tickets in just two months, making it the second-highest grossing tour of 2019.
In many aspects, it really was about timing, Omarion discloses. Fizz and O finished filming for the Love & Hip Hop franchise, Boog inked multiple undisclosed business deals, and Raz-B just returned from a seven-year adventure in China. Their synched schedules heavily impacted their decision to say yes to the tour promoter’s pleas, but Raz concedes his handiwork ultimately thrust the wheels in motion. “I’ve been trying to put the group together for 16 years,” he admits, noting his efforts to secure the B2K trademark for the group. “Just like Fizz said, I never left the group. They like to say the universe; I like to say the price.”
“Why have one when you can have four Chris Browns?”
The announcement of the tour’s lineup, comprised of Chingy, Bobby Valentino, Ying Yang Twins, Lloyd, Pretty Ricky, and Mario, triggered some artists. Fellow singer and child star, Sammie, criticized the tour organizers for excluding him. “Can we go on record and finally say that the promoter reached out to B2K to go on tour,” Boog clarifies, dismissing the question playfully. “We didn’t have nothing to do with none of that other stuff – the lineup, nothing.”
Drama aside (or at least for the moment), the boys assert the tour has been, “straight pandemonium.” A girl at the Newark meet-and-greet was so frantic to see Fizz that she leaked a little on his lap in the midst of getting her picture taken. “It’s funny to see them hold back ’cause they’re adults,” Omarion muses, although, in Fizz’s case, that girl let go. “But then they come to the experience and they wanna grab you and stuff again.” Soiled trousers and a couple of wolfish hands reaching for their packages in the front row would turn out to be the least of their worries.
B2K has been up all night. Nearly 30 minutes before our scheduled sit-down at Jersey City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, they cancel the interview. Less than 12 hours prior, Raz-B shares an Instagram video, announcing his resignation from the Millennium Tour, less than 10 shows in.
“Raz-B is officially off the tour,” he declared in the now-deleted PSA. “I don’t feel safe because I feel like Chris Stokes is around.”
Hours after his initial announcement, Raz rescinds his retirement, stating he will persevere due in part to his fans. None of the members respond to his statement on social media. A rep confirms the tour is happening, but the guys’ aura is too heavy to commit to an in-person interview today. Frankly, this snag in the schedule feels all too familiar.
In 2004, Stokes shocked fans by announcing the group’s disbandment. The news landed just as shockingly as Raz’s recent video and hit B2K’s day-one fanbase like a punch in the gut. The breakup ultimately activated a butterfly effect of bad news.
The first headline reported that the members were unsatisfied with Stokes’ management and demanded to be compensated fairly. That blurb was eclipsed by Raz-B’s home video accusing Stokes, his cousin, of molesting him as well as others in the group. (Stokes has adamantly denied the abuse accusations. In 2018, he tweeted: “I never hurt any of B2K.”) While Omarion, Fizz, and Boog denied the allegations, still citing the mishandling of finances as the reason, Raz’s claim left a dark cloud over the group. The real-life nightmare arrived on the heels of their 2014 dance cult classic You Got Served, and smack-dab in the middle of the blogging era. Our understanding of PTSD and sexual assault, pre-Me Too movement, was in the grey area, which opened the door to insensitive jokes on the Internet and in pop culture (Yung Joc’s 2008 single “Lookin’ Boy” makes a thoughtless remark about Raz’s allegations). It also didn’t help that Fizz recorded a YouTube video dissing Omarion’s solo success and dismissing Raz-B’s truth.
Not everyone took the break-up lightly. Girls around the nation drained their eyes. Literal tears. “I attribute it to watching [Michael] Jordan retire after his third ring. You’re like, ‘No way, that’s not what I want to see. You’re still great. Come back, please,’” Boog realizes. “I think back, when we were younger, we really didn’t understand how intense the situation was. But meeting [the fans] now, 15 years later and hearing them talk about it and how devastated they were, I kind of get it more as an adult. Like ‘damn, that was kind of messed up.’” Fizz echoes the thought. “We weren’t there. It’s different when you’re in the game. You’re not able to see it,” he echoes. “The fish looking out the bowl can’t see how big it is.”
B2K’s end marked another loss for pop culture. The industry already sustained two hits with the Spice Girls disbanding in 2000, followed by 98 Degrees’ dispersion in 2002. But to lose B2K, a staple of black representation within the millennial market, felt like a devastatingly low blow. Even so, Raz-B’s recent triggering remarks unveil the haunting effects of childhood trauma and the pressure on black men to suffer in silence.
Fans rallied behind Raz after his Instagram announcement, but reports of unrest within the group were also met with huff-and-puff attitudes as if folks believed the singer intended to sabotage the tour. The relentless spotlight of social media coupled with the lasting impression of built-up anguish is a lethal cocktail and has only spilled over as time has progressed. The gravity of Raz-B’s plight hit again when he was arrested in May 2019 for domestic abuse against his current girlfriend, with less than 10 shows left on the tour.
“Raz-B takes full responsibility for his actions,” the singer’s team said in a statement following his arrest. “This incident represents a turning point after years of isolation, surpassed emotions, and unhealthy coping mechanisms in response to childhood trauma… Being on tour has forced deep-seated issues to resurface that must be addressed.”
I ask Raz-B during our solo phone conversation, nearly 15 shows after his video statement and ahead of his arrest if he feels comfortable with the tour’s current atmosphere. He snickers knowingly. “I’m very grateful and happy that B2K is back together. That’s my comment,” he says with political correctness. It’s a predictable, yet contradictory sound bite. Weeks prior to our phoner, Raz welcomed dialogue, encouraging me to come to the interview with “good questions.” Even as the group and individual interviews commenced, he frequently complimented the line of questioning, but only spoke openly when he was alone, and even then, he offered neutral answers. “I just want to stay in a real positive space if you know what I’m doing. I know you want to get your story,” he utters, hesitant to stir any more controversy.
Perhaps, this turbulence needed to develop in order for it to be addressed, but his final answer – vague in one regard – indicates that his perspective on that portion of B2K’s history will only come when he is ready.
Past and present trauma and the constant cycle of loved ones dying to gun violence isn’t a part of every pop star’s “True Hollywood Story.” Unfortunately, when you’re black and connected to the hip-hop landscape, this sort of pain is omnipresent. Nonetheless, the show is still expected to go on.
One hour before their Newark, New Jersey stage debut and 30 minutes ahead of their rapid-fire VIP meet-and-greet, Lil Fizz’s chirpy ringtone interrupts our group sit-down backstage. West coast rapper Nipsey Hussle has been shot six times outside of his South Central, Los Angeles clothing store.
The room feels as though it’s been pressurized. Arm hairs stand at attention and the silence feels eerily like thunder. The conversation pivots into a quest for information. As J-Boog and Fizz touch base with their people via cell, it becomes apparent how small the L.A. community is. J-Boog is close to Hussle’s wife, Lauren London; Fizz refers to the L.A. artist as his “brother”; Omarion went to Hamilton High School with him; Raz says they were in talks of creating new music. Their immediate reactions to the news are the most sobering. Fizz masks his watering eyes behind a pair of shades before burying his head in his lap. Boog, anguished and stricken with distress, disappears on the phone between a crack in the wall. It feels invasive to stare.
Nipsey Hussle is confirmed dead seconds after the hour-long meet-and-greet ends. By then, they’ve already retreated to their dressing rooms for showtime. With mobs of people crying at the loss of someone they’ve never met, it makes you wonder: how will they go on?
“It’s not like we’re brothers and best friends and hang out after the tour... When we come together, the spirit takes over.”
Before the Millennium Tour started, the group anticipated hurdles. With a history as turbulent as theirs, expecting bumps should be mandatory. “We always knew what it would take if we decided to do it again. It’s like a formula that we’ve always stuck to,” Omarion confesses. “I think you have to [expect] unforeseen occurrences, but we definitely didn’t focus on that.”
Nip’s death was obviously never something they could account for, but they were aware of the questions that would be asked about them. Where have you been? Why did you break up? Are you guys friends again? Perhaps that’s why they included the summary video in the opening act of their show. Produced by Artistar Entertainment’s Deji LaRay, the three-minute visual takes fans through a digital View-Master of newsreels from the start of their career to the very end – the good, the bad, and the ugly. A handful of women in the front middle section of the Prudential Center literally screamed, “OMG,” stunned by the group’s transparency.
“We seen it before the tour started,” Fizz says. “We were all in shock like, wow, this is incredible. It gives everybody the story leading up to now. I think it added a lot of shock value to the tour.”
Raz, on the other hand, seems standoffish about the video when asked about it individually. “Hey, it is what it is,” he says matter-of-factly. “We want to touch on one part of the story, and it is what it is… That chapter of life is there.”
Another foreseeable element was the work that needed to be done for the tour to happen. Sure, there were strict dietary restraints and workout schedules, but it’s also worth noting the self-care, therapy, and communication amongst the members. “I think that is the therapy, which is the communication, speaking as enlightened four brothers from four different corners of the universe,” Raz-B says. Communication doesn’t mean they agree on everything, but it seems to have played a part in why the tour continues to go on despite its various missteps.
Lessons have been learned both on and off the stage. For three of the members, fatherhood has taught them self-love and the value of time. For Raz, his hiatus in China taught him culture, “grace, humility, [and] more compassion.” As a group, they learned financial literacy. “There’s always a conversation about business when it comes to the entertainment industry,” Omarion explains. “First of all, most artists that are creative are not administrative. How do you play a show and then go backstage, make sure your numbers [are] right? It’s really difficult.”
Boog cosigns Omarion’s sentiment, illustrating a tale that is all too common amongst early-2000s acts who weren’t involved in their financial planning. “It’s so much going on, and then things get moving and you start to not check on everything the way you’re supposed to check on everything,” he recalls, seemingly from personal experience. “If you not in it for the business and you in it for the fame and the little trinkets, then you just gonna be like whatever. That’s the way the industry eventually gets you out of your business. Then you look back like, ‘damn I should’ve been on my sh*t.’”
Although the music industry is a tough teacher at times, the group insists the lessons they learned in communication, family, and money are at the forefront of their reunion and their individual endeavors.
To witness four fine black men who stole a fragment of every girl’s childhood on stage feels electrifying. What’s been a reunion for the boys has also turned into a homecoming and celebration for former middle school and high school friends. It feels like “old times” – girls gushing over autographs on their vintage denim jackets. Sadly, this string of shows and the nostalgic moments that come with them could quite possibly be a one-and-done.
There’s one question that the guys didn’t anticipate being asked: What’s next for B2K? They joke about a 2019 album continuing that “ghetto superstar” pizzaz, but their brazen laughs and round-about ways of answering the question at hand shows the group’s next steps are the furthest thing from their minds. Instead, the focus lies on their individual paths, which potentially includes solo projects from each member after the Millennium Tour’s hype dissolves. The self-care, however, starts now. With less than one-fourth of the tour left, B2K reveals Raz-B made a “brave decision” to not perform during their three-show streak in Florida “as he embarks on this self-care journey.”
“At the end of the day, we’re all grown men and we all live our own separate lives,” Fizz reveals during a short intermission in the tour schedule. “It’s not like we’re brothers and best friends and hang out after the tour. Everybody’s home. I haven’t spoken to any of them. They haven’t spoken to me. And you know, that’s just that. It’s business, but we know what it is. When we come together, the spirit takes over.”
Fizz’s outrightly honest words land as brutally as the realization that the cast of Friends won’t be meeting at Central Perk anymore. It stings, but it’s reality. B2K’s brotherhood is by no means artificial. We’ve seen it up close backstage, at intimate shoots, and on arena stages. “The love is there,” Raz says. “Even when you dislike them for a moment or you guys got into a miscommunication, if we can come back to a cohesive space of love, then you’re cool.” So if by chance fans get to see the group together again—on wax, on screen, on stage— it’ll have to be left in the unpredictable hands of timing.
Photographer: Matthew Salacuse
Photo Assistant: Carl Chisolm
Stylist: Mickey Freeman, Winnie StaCkz
Concert Videographer: Jason Chandler
BTS Videographer: Kristen White
Additional Style Credits (Header/Cover Image) | Omarion | Coat: Yves Saint Laurent, Pant: Fear of God, Necklace: Talent’s own, Boots: Yeezy, Sunglasses: Versace // Lil Fizz | Sunglasses: Tom Ford, Shirt: Hakan Akkaya, Pant: Huf Worldwide, Shoes: Top Owens Collection, Necklace: Cartier // Raz B | Hat: FreeMen By Mickey, Jacket and Pant: Hakan Akkaya, T-shirt: Dissimilis, Boots: Louis Vuitton, Sunglasses: Rayban, Watch: Valdecio Collection // J-Boog | Blazer, Necklace and Sunglasses: Versace, Leather Tie and Pant: Hakan Akkaya, Boots: Angela Mitchell