Regardless of their more recent failures or successes, some celebrities remain inextricably linked to a past incident instead of their craft. Names such as Ike Turner and O.J. Simpson come to mind as transcendent talents who crossed the line separating fame from infamy. There are moments on his sixth studio album X that would lead you to believe Chris Brown can vie for the title of the best pop vocalist of the current lot hoping to be considered as a modern heir apparent to Michael Jackson. And while he approaches excellence on the surface, for some listeners his less-than-stellar criminal record places a glass ceiling on the overall excellence of any of his recorded material. Thus, with half of X representing some of Pop R&B’s most impressive cuts of 2014 (while, yes, the other half feeling dreadfully uninspired), Brown still faces being supremely talented yet always far less than optimally successful.
“Loyal” ran the summer, and aside from the Michael Jackson appropriating album lead-in single “Fine China” (available on the deluxe version), is the best-known hits on the album to-date. Like a great deal of the material on X, the NicNac production has two guest features (Tyga and Lil Wayne) and bears a strong resemblance to much of DJ Mustard’s mid-tempo club anthems that have dominated the past 12 months. It’s as if the song’s relaxed tempo invites relaxed emceeing and songwriting too, as the number of incredibly vapid and obviously misogynistic come-ons here reaches a near uncomfortable level.
Dance culture is here too. The progressive House track “Don’t Be Gone Too Long” lacks a powerful and earnest enough vocal performance to buoy the barely-there synths and the UK funky-meets-dub bass of Razihel’s “Body Shots” is reminiscent of Katy B’s work on Magnetic Man’s 2012 single “I Need Air,” meaning that the usually on point Brown is about two years off-trend regarding the ever evolving world of dance. Diplo takes the reigns for eponymous and Trap-as-EDM, 808 and synth laser-driven single “X,” which, in Brown emphatically stating that “[he] swears to god he’s moving on!” is either an amazing kiss-off to well documented on again/off again flame Rihanna, or an angry note to on again/off again mate Karreuche Tran. And that’s the thing with Brown and X. The overwhelming majority of artists would get the benefit of addressing a hypothetical ex. Aside from “Team Breezy,” which listeners will extend Brown the courtesy of painting himself the victim? Is the reference to being “put on layaway” not a shot at Rihanna splitting time between Brown and Rap superstar Drake?
X’s weakest points are where Brown absolutely does too much and is off-course in his answers to commercially popular and guitar-driven styles. “Autumn Leaves” is definitely soulful, yet in feeling entirely too lyrically bathed in Brown’s lovelorn and litigious past, can’t even be saved by the introspective lyrical talents of Kendrick Lamar. “See You Around?” Well, the less said about Chris Brown aping the style and sound of jug-band rockers Mumford and Sons, the better.
The album’s strongest suit is in traditional love-sexy rhythm and blues. These work in part because Brown enlists some of his peers to play to their strong suits. Usher co-opts his 2008 hit “Love In This Club” for “New Flame.” Brown and fellow R. Kelly disciple Trey Songz drop trite R. Kelly song titles as puns on Mel and Mus’ soulful trap ballad “Songs On 12 Play,” while “Drown In It” is an out in the open ode to cunnilingus—Kellz the master joining his student on a hyper-sexual duet with lyrics swaddled in simmering bass.
Thankfully, X also has offerings that are outstanding in their own unique ways. Female duets “Drunk Texting” and “Do Better” are likely odes to things Brown himself is likely quite well acquainted with of late. Both Jhene Aiko and Brandy respectively delivering mature performances that when melded with Brown’s sometimes juvenile real-life behavior make both listens feel like more conversations on Brown’s current life than mere Pop ditties. “Stereotype” finds Danja producing something that grabs deep into the past (Stevie Wonder-style, Moog-type synths) and blends it with the energy of big-room house handclaps and trapped out bass for a true winner. When Brown labels his ex a negative “stereotype” that he’d like to forget, it’s a message that Brown—after being heartbroken for three albums—is hopefully ready to move on to a new (and hopefully lyrically and sonically fresh) chapter of his life.
Personality aside, Chris Brown’s ability to succeed artistically at delivering sounds in all three sectors of urban Pop makes this release a great, yet disjointed listen. From commercially dominant ratchet Rap/Soul to heartfelt and yearning album cuts to EDM-styled party tracks, Brown’s attempts at appealing to all corners of the urban Pop spectrum at-present are commendable, but possibly a case of the vocalist doing too much.