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BEST R&B ARTIST Minneapolis 2003 - R.L.

Readers' Choice: Casablanca Orchestra

Like Prince, Next singer-producer R.L. can't seem to leave town. He works out and goes out in downtown Minneapolis. He supports local charities on the down low, and he seems to hear every word said about him on KMOJ or B96. He'll show up at South Beach for an impromptu performance with T-Low, his partner in Next, whom he joins onstage at events like last year's CD release party for A/X, an up-and-coming local rapper. Yet R.L., T-Low, and Tweet (Next's third member) only rarely play their hometown. The problem could be medical: R.L. has said that the trio's appearance in December opening for Snoop Dogg at the Xcel Energy Center was T-Low's first gig since throat surgery. But if Next are worried about local love, they shouldn't be. During the characteristically charismatic performance, R.L. got gleeful screams from the floor when he tossed off his shirt. And when the group launched into the subtly addictive "Imagine That" (off their third album, The Next Episode, on J Records), the screamers sang every word. To them it's obvious that Next are a classic: The 1997 smash "Too Close" is already a golden oldie, endlessly recycled on compilations such as last year's Ultimate Dance Party: The Best Of!!. Still, one wonders if the group believes its status. As the fortune cookie says, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but presence makes the love grow stronger.

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