An Image That's Hard to Shed: Chris Brown Releases a New Album, 'X'
Chris Brown begins “X,” his new album, in a buck-passing mood. The opening song, the title track, begins, “If you’re only as good as the company you keep/Then I’m-a blame you for what they say about me.”
For a man for whom accountability hasn’t been a strong suit, this pronouncement is both extremely troubling and completely obvious, a position statement of shrugging and deflecting.
The majority of Mr. Brown’s career has been defined by his 2009 assault of Rihanna, then his girlfriend, for which he pleaded guilty and received five years’ probation and community service. With “X” (RCA), he has now released twice as many albums as a felon as he had before — four to two — and none have gone very far toward repairing his public image.
Even now, more than five years after the attack, violence defines his narrative. See, for example, the headline that recently appeared on MTV’s website promoting an interview with Mr. Brown: “Chris Brown’s Advice For Ray Rice: It’s How You Control Your Anger.” In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, CBS decided to delay broadcasting an opening segment for its Thursday night football programming featuring Rihanna’s “Run This Town”; “We needed to have the appropriate tone and coverage,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS sports, told Sports Illustrated. That same night, Mr. Brown performed on “The Tonight Show,” typical of a culture that absolves the perpetrator but often continues to punish the victim. (After Rihanna complained on Twitter — “The audacity,” she wrote — CBS canceled the plan to go ahead with the segment altogether.)
Mr. Brown, who has a fervent fan base, has remained popular despite the pillory. And while he has had a fair share of hits, his infamy has survived his musical accomplishments.
So it may not matter much that “X” is one of his least ambitious releases. From a singer with less devoted fans, it might come and go with little notice. But in the two years that it has taken to release “X,” Mr. Brown has had a string of hits that have kept him in the conversation — the sweet “Fine China,” the raunchy “Love More,” the tactless “Loyal.” (The first two of those are burned off here as bonus tracks, a reminder of how long this album has been delayed, with announced release dates going all the way back to summer of last year.)
Those are the standout songs in what’s primarily a sea of mediocrity. Mr. Brown is a lithe singer but not a particularly emphatic one — on his best songs, he darts in and out vocally over up-tempo production well-suited to his fluid dance moves. But in this album, these feverish impulses feel muted. He sounds tentative, maybe a little fatigued. That’s the case on “Songs on 12 Play,” an unmemorable homage to R. Kelly, who appears on the exceedingly moist “Drown In It” and effectively schools the younger singer, whose tone is airy and rarely convincingly seductive. (Mr. Kelly remains intensely popular despite years of allegations of improper sexual activity — pairing the two feels like tacky gimmickry.)
In a couple of places, Mr. Brown sings with real intensity, especially “Autumn Leaves,” a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. It’s bruised, and almost feels as if Mr. Lamar is scolding him from inside the song.
Given Mr. Brown’s history, it stands to reason that fraught duets with women would make for some of his most provocative material, but he has rarely collaborated with female artists, and almost never on his own albums. His most successful duet — “No Air,” with Jordin Sparks, appeared on her album, not his. And his most controversial duet came when he added vocals to Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake.”
By and large, female performers have steered clear of Mr. Brown’s albums, until now. Brandy joins him on a passionate, “Do Better,” that details a rollicking, crumbling relationship. It’s soft as a heartbeat, and one of the best songs here. The woozy “Drunk Texting” features Jhené Aiko, and the video for “Don’t Be Gone Too Long,” a martial pop stomper, features the young pop star Ariana Grande. Most uncomfortable is “Don’t Think They Know,” which includes old Aaliyah vocals.
By appearing alongside him, these women implicitly vouch for his character, and maybe that’s part of a long-term strategy toward rebuilding Mr. Brown’s image. At minimum, it links him to women besides Rihanna.
For years, Mr. Brown largely avoided the press because the conversation always came back to Rihanna. But lately, he has re-emerged, willing to give, at the least, facsimiles of answers to questions about that phase of his life.
Asked recently by Billboard if he can envision a time when his relationship with Rihanna won’t be mentioned, he replied: “When we’re not relevant anymore, that might be the case. As long as you’re doing something good, people will always bring up old stuff or negative stuff because they don’t want you to surpass a certain level.”
Consciously or not, albums like “X” hasten the arrival of that future.