UP THERE IN THE POP HEIGHTS where he dwells, 6'8" Montell Jordan hasn't lost sight of who his fans are. "Hip-hop fans say, 'Don't give me that singing stuff.' Rhythm-and-blues fans say rap in an R&B song contaminates it. So I confuse everybody. I write rap lyrics. But I sing them."

And sing he does, with a smooth, Barry White-on-Slimfast elegance that propelled the 27-year-old's debut single, "This Is How We Do It," to Billboard's No. 1 spot. His album of the same title, a mélange of styles that mixes romantic ballads with street beats and calls for condom use along with graphic sex jams, was released in April and is a Billboard Top 20 smash praised by the Los Angeles Times for its "youthful bravado." Says the ebullient Jordan: "Sometimes I'm romantic, and sometimes I'm just a freak muthuh out to get laid. Those are all part of Montell."

Jordan's musical bravado and raunchy lyrics actually disguise a straight arrow. The oldest of Delois and Elijah Jordan's four children—she's a microfilm company administrator, he's an accountant—Montell grew up in South Central L.A. While some homeboy pals stole car stereos, Jordan says, his close friends "used to make music or draw."

Encouraged at home, Jordan began playing piano at 10 and by 14 was a director of the Carver Missionary Baptist Church choir. After working his way through Malibu's Pepperdine University, where he graduated in 1991, he abandoned plans to study law and concentrated on making demo tapes. Eventually one of them found its way to pioneering rap producer Russell Simmons, who signed him to a contract and helped launch his career.

Now preparing for a 71-city tour with Boyz II Men, Jordan, who is single, still lives in a modest apartment near South Central. "He doesn't let being a star go to his head," reports sister Tracy. "Family comes first. When I turned 15 last January, he came to my party, leaned over to rest his head on top of mine and sang 'Happy Birthday' in front of everybody. I was like, 'Oh, my God, could he possibly embarrass me any more than this?' But I liked it too."