AP Music Writer

When B2K debuted a year ago, the prospects for a new boy band weren't bright: There was a growing backlash against teen pop, and recent heartthrobs were fast becoming has-beens.

Yet the R&B quartet from Los Angeles has managed to buck the trend. Within nine months, they've released two albums that have gone gold; had the best-selling R&B single of 2002 with "Uh Huh"; and notched their first No. 1 single, "Bump, Bump, Bump," a rump-shaking dance song featuring P. Diddy.

"Teens really love them. The music is very catchy. It's pop without falling into that category ... (of) cheesy pop," says Cara Lynn Shultz, associate entertainment editor at Teen People magazine.

"They're not a really sanitized boy band," she says. "They are a little edgier, they are a little sexier."

B2K's penchant for going shirtless during performances, their gyrating dance moves and their sensuous love ballads have made teen girls swoon. A few staked out their Manhattan hotel recently, part of the reason B2K travels with hulking bodyguards.

But the four young men still have a clean-cut demeanor and humble attitude that would please parents.

"We're the nicest gentlemen," says 18-year-old Omarion (real name -- Omari Grandberry), who like the rest of the guys in the group, is soft-spoken and known by a nickname.

Besides, the group members say, they want to be more than teen pinups. Seventeen-year-old De'mario Thornton, who goes by the nickname Raz B, likens B2K to The Jackson Five and New Edition.

"No offense to them, because they were really really, like, dope in their time, but we want to be the new (group) that sets the trends for everybody else," he says.

B2K got its start following in the footsteps of another teen act -- the '90s R&B trio Immature, or IMX. That group's manager, Chris Stokes, was looking to put together a new group and decided to keep it in the family: Raz B is his cousin, and another B2K member, J-Boog (Jarell Houston), is the cousin of IMX's lead singer, Marques Houston.

With Lil Fizz (Dreux Frederic), the group was a trio for a while. But they became a quartet by dipping into IMX's gene pool again, this time with Omarion, Houston's half-brother.

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B2K -- meaning Boys of the Millennium -- was born.

"We felt that the four together had a chemistry that I hadn't seen since TLC," said Max Gousse, who was instrumental in getting the group signed to Epic Records, where he's vice president of A&R. "They're all perfectionists and they each serve a purpose in the group."

Despite their connections to the record industry, it would take B2K about four years to finally get their record deal on Epic. Many of their teen years were spent perfecting the act and waiting anxiously for their big break.

"Everyday we would go to rehearsals, dance rehearsals -- we pretty much had to strive and everything to get to where we are," says Lil Fizz.

But once their self-titled debut disc came out, it didn't take long for them to become sensations. Despite the flagging interest in pop boy bands, B2K -- an all-black group whose focus is R&B -- managed to fill a gap in the teen market that few knew existed.

"They're almost like the new Boyz II Men, and right now, there really isn't anybody else filling that hole," says Shultz. "They came along at a time when there really wasn't anybody else."

Another key to B2K's success has been their willingness to show up everywhere. Along with frequent TV appearances, they actually released four albums last year: "B2K," the follow-up "Pandemonium," a remix album and a Christmas disc.

They also spent a good part of 2002 on tour.

Gousse says it was important not to lose any momentum after the first disc. "With early success, a lot of acts tend to take it easy," he says. "B2K is constantly working to get this to the next level."

B2K's busy schedule was probably responsible for their apparent fatigue during a recent interview; they had had little sleep and were preparing for yet another appearance on MTV later that day.

But they say they have more work to do. The foursome, who co-wrote most of the songs on "Pandemonium," hopes to move eventually into acting, producing and more.

"We look at it as work -- we have a job, and even though sometimes we're really really tired, we know that we have stuff to do, and we want to be at a certain point in our careers," says Omarion. "So instead of complaining, we do what we have to do."