Chris Brown is an artist whose public persona is nearly impossible to separate from his art.
He's an obviously gifted singer, and frequently an even better dancer. His pout and his swagger, when he's performing, is all part of the act. And the act can often be the art. He's also been repeatedly arrested, charged and sentenced for assault; he publicly brawls with other artists; he's proven a hostile and defensive in television appearances and on social media. That recent Billboard interview was insufferable. He can be vile about women, boastful about commercial success and his own materialism.
His success is dependent on inspired live performances, a hit single and the support of his label and guest artists on his records. This need has worked its way into his art, onto his new album “X,” though not always in the most explicit, lyrical terms.
“X” was an album that took a year-and-a-half to make, and publicly went through spits and starts. It's biggest rev really began with the success of “Loyal” feat. Tyga and Lil Wayne, a runaway hip-hop smash with a hugely catchy vibe and ugly, misogynistic lyrics that sprinkles drug use on top like the Weeknd showed up for the weekend. It's defensive as hell, too, which makes fans “loyal” to Brown defensive on his behalf. He doesn't even need to answer to its blatant, demeaning themes.
Except that he does anyway.
“If you're only as good as the company you keep / Then I'mma blame you for what they say about me,” he warns in the first lines of the titular, opening dance-inspired track. It's a noisy and soaring offering, co-produced by Brown and Diplo. Then, cynically: “I can make you a believer if I turn the nonsense down.”
The “company” he keeps on this album, in addition to Diplo? Chart-toppers like Usher, Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar, Trey Songz, Jhene Aiko and producer Danja. (Nicki Minaj wastes away on “Love More” from the deluxe bonus version, the same collection of excess tracks where Brown's terrible “Fine China” exists to be burned by a thousand fires.)
Some of these singers, rappers and beat-makers are contemporaries any artist would kill to keep in their cadre. Stylistically, Brown's riding their sonics. This does not make for a cohesive album.
“Songs on 12 Play” is an obvious homage to Kellz, plugging “Ignition” though inviting Songz to guest on vocals. R. Kelly shows up instead on messy pussy ode “Drown In It” which is just as explicit as you imagine. Perfectly innocuous “New Flame” reverses it's simple structure to cater to an Usher cameo and, worse, a dorky Rick Ross verse, promising to do you ladies “right.”
Let's pause. I don't think for a single second the cameos from troubled artists like R. Kelly (for his chronicled history of sexual assault of young women), Rick Ross (who has difficulty grasping what sexual assault even is) and Akon (whose rep was partially staked on a fake criminal history) on an album of troubled artist Chris Brown is coincidence. I also think that guest spots from artists like Grande, Aiko, Brandy and Lil Wayne were from artists who wanted or could use the exposure: Grande and Brown were in the lab before “Problem” was even Grande's great career solution. Brandy's rebuilding the Brandy brand, as is loyal Wayne. Aiko is building off her breakout year.
This all returns to that initial assertion, that “guilt/innocence by association” I think its in moments like these that Brown forces an intersection of public face — ego — and art.
Perhaps that's why there's “Loyal,” and its reheated machismo on “Stereotype.” That's why there's the slobbery sex anthems and fluffy suite of “Body Shots” and “Drunk Texting.” “X” is 17 songs long, including a throwaway “interlude” (“101”), performed in a lot of different styles and hardly a single one of them focus on the “personal” Brown, about forgiveness or debt, prison or rehab, girlfriends or exes, or growth.
Brown and his company think it's time you forget the ego: he wants a hit, whether descriptive, debaucherous or offensive. As long as it stays impersonal.
Reeling “Autumn Leaves” and “Do Better” do alright; “X” really is a wind-up toy that will get you ready for a game better than this. “Time for Love” and “Add Me In” are also highlights, with some vocal takes that actually sound inspired.
Overall, though, a prioritization of style over substance may explain why “X” just feels like R&B spit-balling, sounding like “now,” not “for always,” and zero fun at all. To quote another lyric from “X,” “I swear to God I'm moving on”: Brown breezily flitting between villainous provocateur to lover-man to pimp to The Good Guy — the “moving on” — is maybe what's holding him back.