Working his magic on the Dru World Order

Sun Music Critic

If you ever want to see what star power actually looks like, put Sisqo in front of a crowd.

Sitting in his elegantly appointed house in Randallstown, the diminutive Dru Hill singer comes off as charming, charismatic and quietly intelligent. Apart from his close-cropped platinum hairdo, 21-year old Mark "Sisqo" Andrews seems like an everyday, average guy -- almost too down-to-earth to be a major-league R&B star.

But he is, of course. "Dru Hill," the Baltimore-based quartet's 1996 debut, sold some 2 million copies and put five singles into the Top 10, including "Tell Me" and "In My Bed." The follow-up, 1998's "Enter the Dru," sold even better and is now closing in on triple-platinum status. This summer found the group getting a role in Will Smith's chart-topping single "Wild Wild West," with Sisqo himself leading the way into the chorus.

It's quite a track record. But when asked about his success, Sisqo responds with a modesty bordering on disbelief. "It's unreal," he says. "That's the best way I could describe it. It doesn't really feel like it's real."

Maybe not, but there's something undeniably real about the magic he works during a promotional appearance at Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall later that day. Although the event itself is fairly standard -- he's set to sign autographs and judge some sort of fashion show -- the chemistry between him and the crowd is extraordinary.

As soon as he's led into the crowd, it's like a switch goes on. In an instant, his presence becomes palpable. Even though his wiry frame is lost amid the crush of fans, heads swivel in his direction. It's as if their eyes are compass needles, irresistibly pulled toward his personal magnetism.

Clearly, Sisqo enjoys the attention. He's promoting his new solo album, "Unleash the Dragon" (it arrives in stores today) and is eager to spread the word. He also wants the fans to get a chance to see past the glossy image that turns up on MTV and BET. Sisqo says he likes to go into the community "so people can get a chance to see me, touch me, talk to me and realize I'm still the same guy that they've always known."

Letting the fans know he's still the same is crucial for Sisqo, because right now, he and the rest of Dru Hill are going through some major changes -- something the group has dubbed the Dru World Order.

Last March, Sisqo, Larry "Jazz" Anthony and Tamir "Nokio" Ruffin announced that Dru Hill's fourth member, James "Woody" Green was leaving the group to pursue a career in gospel music. "What happened was, we were in the middle of shooting the 'Wild Wild West' video, and Woody decided that he wanted to do his solo project," says Sisqo.

It wasn't an ego thing or the result of some personality conflict, says Sisqo. "It was driven spiritually. So we really couldn't be mad."

Nonetheless, Woody's abrupt departure put the other three in a difficult situation. "That left us standing there, like, 'What do we do in the biggest moment of our career?' " says Sisqo. "Basically, we just had to go on. ... We had to block everybody else out, block all our feelings out, anything we were thinking, and just do it."

No sooner did the three finish the "Wild Wild West" video than Dru Hill hit the road for a concert tour. Throughout the summer, life was like a whirlwind.

"By the time that 'Wild Wild West' slowed down, and the tour slowed down, we finally got the chance to just sit back and look around," says Sisqo. "And when I looked around, I realized that it was three guys standing there pretending to be Dru Hill, when in actuality, Dru Hill is four guys."

Sisqo believed it was time for a change, but the change he had in mind wasn't the one most people expected. "I knew everybody was always talking about me going solo and stuff," he says, "but I was about to quit singing. ... I came to Jazz and I came to Nokio, and I said, 'Yo, if Woody don't come back to the group, I'll quit singing. I'm going to do something else.' "

Sisqo had -- and still has -- serious interest from Hollywood, and he likes the idea of being in the movies. But even that isn't as attractive to him as being in Dru Hill. "I never, ever wanted to be a solo artist," he says.

So Sisqo went to Woody, and talked things out. "I said, 'Man, you gotta come back to the group,' " says Sisqo. " 'You leaving the group is not doing anything for either of us. I mean, I know you want to sing gospel or whatever, but it's like, the group made all of us, and any formal separation could lead to fans abandoning us because they feel betrayed.'

"We went back and forth, talking about the pros and cons of coming back to the group. Eventually, he decided he would come back to the group, but he said he had to do his gospel album first."

Sisqo contemplated putting Dru Hill on hold while Woody did the Lord's work, but Jazz had a better idea. "He suggested we have everybody do a solo album, put a brand new Dru Hill song on each person's solo album," says Sisqo. "This time next year, we'll bring out the new Dru album."

This, then, is the Dru World Order. After Sisqo's "Unleash the Dragon," Dru believers can look forward to an inspirational album from Woody, a typically inventive effort from Nokio, and what Sisqo describes as "an R&B Biggie Smalls" project from Jazz. Each album is expected to broaden the group's fan base, while maintaining that Dru Hill flavor.

Sisqo points to "Love Passing Through," the Dru Hill track on "Unleash the Dragon," as being typical of the new Dru. Written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the song finds Sisqo and the guys taking a different vocal approach. "It doesn't sound like any Dru Hill song we ever sang. We totally flipped our style; we totally flipped the arrangement. It's just a totally new sound."

The same could be said for the rest of Sisqo's album. Although he's best-known for his ballad work, "Unleash the Dragon" puts its emphasis on up-tempo numbers like the catchy, salacious "Thong Song" or the itchy, rhythmic current single, "Got to Get It."

For all the changes in his life, Sisqo says most things are pretty much the same. "Things are looking good," he says. "We're moving in a good direction. And with me and Nokio, Jazz and Woody still having a tight relationship, it's really going over well. People may want to think negative about it, but when they see that there's a Dru Hill song on my album and we're still working together, it kind of makes them feel at ease."

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