Pockmarked by stints in rehab and jail, mandated court appearances, and a shooting at his pre-VMA party this summer, 2014 has ended up another tumultuous year in a string of many for Chris Brown. The intense, continuous coverage of Brown’s legal drama, personal problems, and relationships casts a shadow on the fact that he remains one of pop and R&B’s most reliable hitmakers, more than a half-decade after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna threw his white-hot career into jeopardy. In the first half of this decade, he’s released four top 10 singles and two #1 albums, with features on dozens of other minor hits. Even as he spent much of this year bouncing between treatment and custody, his single “Loyal” lingered in the top 10 of both the pop and R&B charts; it achieved a level of cultural penetration (as measured by tweets and spin-off memes) matched by few songs released this year. Brown has been preparing his new album, the simply titled X, for nearly eighteen months, though it’s been plagued a series of delays and singles that failed to make a lasting impression on the charts. The final product is a widely varied mishmash of genres, producers, and collaborators that fails to achieve any sort of tonal or thematic consistency. It begs the question: other than a vehicle for record sales and controversy clicks, who is Chris Brown as an artist?
The best place to start a review of Brown’s strengths and weaknesses is his voice, a finicky instrument that lies at the core of his appeal. It’s thin, nimble, and agile, and possessed of surprising range; in many ways, it’s the musical manifestation of Brown’s skill as a dancer, his other major talent. Though he’s undoubtedly skilled, he doesn’t have the emotional depth or richness of tone required to successfully convey affection or generate a palpable mood; rather than drum up true feeling, he tends to sing about sex like it’s an athletic event, and about relationships as if they’re purely transactional in nature. (This was true even before he wrote and released a song called “Add Me In” that happens to couch a marathon bedroom session in hacky math metaphors galore.)
The qualities Brown lacks are thrown into harsh light when he’s placed alongside other male singers on some of the collaborations on X: Usher, Trey Songz, and R. Kelly all appear in the album’s first half and glide effortlessly alongside Brown, fluttering around him or summoning a sort of slippery salaciousness that makes him sound childlike by comparison. He sounds best on the songs where he can excitedly flit around, dipping in between zippy electro-funk riffs or sweaty synthesizer lines; “Add Me In,” dopey R. Kelly homage “Songs on 12 Play,” and the strobe-lit “Body Shots” all shine. The agility in his vice also pairs well with the strain of minimal electro-R&B currently in vogue, openly lecherous and hanging on two or three note melodies; the aforementioned “Loyal,” a stunner thanks to the writing of sordid rising star Ty Dolla $ign, and DJ Mustard knock-off/Akon feature “Came to Do” are both solid examples of the form.
You’d think at this point in his career — X is his sixth studio album, and he’s been a major star for nearly a decade — that Brown would have a decent handle on his comfort zones and weaknesses, that he would show even a passing interest in achieving some sort of cohesiveness or in doubling down on his strengths. This album is an hour’s worth of evidence that no such interest exists. It’s hard to get a handle on X because so much of the album is spent trend-chasing: there’s big tent EDM-pop with super-producers like Diplo and Danja, straightforwardly filthy R&B slow jams, moody relationship ballads, and even a folky crossover bid that sounds like a Phillip Phillips castoff, all contained within the album’s sprawl. And speaking of sprawl, the album isn’t helped by its length, either: stretching over an hour in length (and longer still in its deluxe form, stuffed with the singles that failed to launch the record in the first place), it’s tough to digest in one large sitting, and is rendered repetitive by recycled lyrical motifs and anemic production. The overall impression is that of an artist whose guiding light is commercial performance, rather than any sort of creative aspirations or overarching identity.
That’s perfectly fine, of course. It would be naive and wrongheaded to suggest that artistic achievement is the only appropriate motivation for musicians, or the driving force behind the music industry — but there’s a transparency and a spinelessness to X that makes it hard to connect with Brown as a creative human force, rather than a melody delivery mechanism. And that’s unfortunate, because given his long and well-documented history of personal strife — abuse, homophobia, cool defensiveness — that kind of basic human connection is the kind of thing Brown could probably stand to cultivate.