Chris Brown in 2015 suffers from the same problem as his fellow pop-R&B titan R. Kelly: listening to his music forces readers to confront whether it’s okay to support a musician accused (and, in Brown’s case, convicted) of some truly heinous things.
Any listener of Brown is constantly doing subconscious arithmetic on the fly to determine whether the listening experience is worth more than knowing you’re supporting someone who ruthlessly beat then-girlfriend Rihanna on the night of the 2009 Grammys.
Asking listeners to discount Brown’s major misstep is a big enough task in itself, but it’s made worse by Breezy’s conscious decision to steer into the skid (and unconscious decision to generally be a loudmouth and a jerk who throws chairs at venues as artist-friendly as TODAY). Since that fateful night with Rihanna, Brown has dropped album after album painting himself as the absolute worst kind of person, haunting the darkest corners of clubs exuding equal parts confidence and menace.
Given that, an objective look at Chris Brown’s debut album (which turned 10 on Nov. 29) is like peeking into an alternate timeline or parallel universe.
2005’s Brown came off like a young Usher Raymond (who was only just beginning his flirtation with cookie-cutter club tracks). While this Brown was far from chaste, the exchanges between Chris and the various “girl”s seemed a lot less transactional than his later anthems. Brown could even be downright polite while pitching woo on his first outing, best exemplified on “Yo” (perhaps better known by it’s Virginia-as-hell parenthetical “Excuse Me Miss”).
Chris Brown lays the blueprint for an alternate career trajectory, one where Brown’s discography as he moves into grown ‘n’ sexy territory is better exemplified by songs that sound like “Poppin’” than ones that sound like “Loyal.”
And Brown did appear to be on that track. A look at his 2007 sophomore release Exclusive reveals a Brown who still treats his nameless, faceless objects of desire with as much respect as possible, rarely diving into the crassness that defined his later work. A woman who wants Brown is looking for that “lovey dovey, kiss kiss.” He wants to spend the rest of his life not on a bed full of assorted groupies, but on a dancefloor.
Chris Brown was all set to never become a leering purveyor of EDM pop, second only to The Weeknd on the list of “Guys Who Will Never Make Love, Only F*ck.” But the events of 2009 knocked him clean off that path. Brown was suddenly the type to end a song about all-night sex with an implied threat that his partner better not “be on that bullsh*t.” The type of man who has to start the chorus of a song comparing a woman to fine china with “It’s alright, I’m not dangerous,” assurances that sound like an attempt to calm down a startled animal (and something that the backflipping Brown of “Run It!” would never have to do).
Of course, it’s entirely possible that if Brown had never felt the need to play the heel, he would have tottered on in the same vein of smooth, largely inoffensive R&B, then he never would have reached the level of fame and cultural ubiquity that he currently enjoys. The age of social media and gossip websites needs villains like Brown to stay afloat and there’s a chance that a career made of “Ain’t No Way You Won’t Love Me” clones would lead to us remembering Brown as the less-gifted Trey Songz, rather than the other way around.
Still, as the album hits double digits, it’s intriguing to spin something as smooth as “Is This Love?” and consider what might have been.