The year 2005 was one of R&B potpourri, fresh off of Usher’s Confessions steamroll. Destiny’s Child decided to bow out gracefully with their fifth studio album, Destiny Fulfilled. Mariah Carey reclaimed her dominance with The Emancipation Of Mimi. R. Kelly continued on his trek to redemption with the lukewarm TP-3: Reloaded. John Legend took lovers of soul to new heights with his debut, Get Lifted. Bobby Valentino’s “Slow Down” rocked on every block. Youngins Mario and Omarion put wins on the board with “Let Me Love You” and the former B2K frontman’s re-emergence as a solo artist with O.
And then came Chris Brown.
Cashing out on the wayward hormonal mess of adolescence, the scrawny, charming, 16-year-old Southern heartthrob with a Colgate smile jigged his way into the hearts of girls everywhere with “Run It!” Though already destined to be a hit single – it was produced by Scott Storch, written by Sean Garrett and featured Juelz Santana – the track was brought to life by a rambunctious fresh face. Baggy pants, blinged out earrings, and fresh fitted caps in tow, Brown would take the sound to another level with his zeal. Tack on quick-footed dance moves and a voice equipped with range, riffs and runs, and a star was born. With the impending release of his debut self-titled album ten years ago on November 29, 2005, Brown was quickly stamped as the future of R&B.
In his premier VIBE cover story (Feb. 2006), we pointed to Brown’s penchant for having “enough gliding moves to make one think the stage was an ice-skating rink” as the je nais se quois that set him apart from his peers. We also praised the young singer’s pipes for their ability to “sidestep any criticism from listeners with finely tuned ears waiting for a broken note to fall from his mouth.” But there is one other – more telling – part of the story.
Aside from his intriguingly robust level of talent, age served as Chris Brown’s closest ally. Another newcomer, Trey Songz, was 21 years old when his debut I Gotta Make It hit shelves in 2005. Omarion would turn 21 the following year, with a sophomore album to commemorate his coming of age. Ne-Yo (the pen behind Mario’s “Let Me Love You”) decided to step to the mic with In My Own Words at the ripe age of 25. And Mario was 19 when his biggest hit sat atop the charts. Brown was a boy among men, and in the perfect space to represent the next generation; one that would watch him grow facial hair, perform his first song about sex, and come into manhood. As traditional R&B flourished around him (Mary J. Blige, Jamie Foxx and Jaheim), the young singer began an evolution of the genre.
“Run It!,” which spent four weeks at No. 2 on the Hot 100 before snatching the top spot from Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” was a prelude to what Brown would continue to do for the next decade: relentlessly disrupt the constructs of “rhythm and blues.” Though not venturing too far outside of the lines his first go-round (single “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” and “Say Goodbye” were not as adventurous), his genesis foretold a shift in the game. By album number two, 2007’s Exclusive, Brown – now 18 years old and more confident – was tapping more electric up-tempos (“Wall To Wall), swimming deep in hip-hop waters (“Kiss Kiss”) and annihilating the pop arena (“Forever”). As Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and Robin Thicke stuck to the script to top the charts, Brown pushed the envelope with the most diverse catalog of sounds. The record went on to be his most successful to date, selling over three million copies worldwide.
Brown’s sonic modus operandi would persist even after controversy threatened to tarnish him forever in 2009. A downfall to growing up in the spotlight, one of his gravest mistakes (his assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna) changed the world’s outlook. Still, with a life-sized monkey wrench wedged between his superstardom, the now-labeled-troubled singer won a Grammy for Best R&B Album for his 2011 release, F.A.M.E., his most diverse offering to date. Brown tampered with EDM on “Yeah 3x” and Beautiful People,” traded bars with Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne on “Look At Me Now,” went pop with Justin Bieber on “Next 2 You,” sampled Michael Jackson and SWV on “She Ain’t You,” and flung around libido that would make R. Kelly proud on “No BS.” The following year, Brown rocked dance charts with his Fortune singles, “Turn Up The Music,” and “Don’t Wake Me Up.” There was no level of musical flexibility comparable. There still isn’t.
The shift brought on by Brown did not stop at the sound; there was also a striking shift in content. Breezy, now at age 26, has championed “millennials” for the past ten years – a generation that does not date and is less likely to get married, (TIME magazine said, we didn’t). The stark reality of the matter is: art imitates life, and young folks are living in the fast lane (because the Internet?). This truth is why his latest platinum single, “Loyal” – which also persisted despite Brown’s 2014 jail stint – is a declaration of the inability of “hoes” to stay true. “Loyal” was also preceded by Brown’s requests to see a girl “Strip,” and his chucking of the “Deuces” to his ex. Chris Brown is no R&B loverboy, for better or for worse, depending on who’s complaining, criticizing, or writing the think piece.
Hate it or love it, Chris Brown’s influence is etched in stone. In a current musical landscape that is thrusted forward by the power of the single, Breezy fares well among the greats. Usher, a face on the Mount Rushmore of modern R&B, boasts a career-long 327 weeks in the Top 75 on the singles charts. In one decade (compared to Usher’s two), Brown has edged out the powerhouse with a whopping 441 weeks in the Top 75 on the singles charts – which is more than current chart toppers Taylor Swift (259) and Drake (222). Brown comes close to Beyonce, who tops him with 482 weeks, and he is significantly bested only by pop phenoms: Rihanna, who boasts 951 weeks in the Top 75, and Michael Jackson, who holds 687. Further than just shifting the R&B landscape, Brown has managed to bring his own brand of the genre to the mainstream stratosphere.
Chris Brown is not a singer. He is not a dancer, he is not an actor, he is not a visual artist, he is not a video director, he is not a performer with complete command of the stage. He is not one of these, because he is all of them. His influence seeps into Justin Bieber’s dopest records and has quietly given Drake the freedom to croon like the light-skinned Keith Sweat, but has also transcended the Billboard charts. This is what will stand the test of time – longer than any indiscretion.
So the next time you wonder, “What happened to R&B?” Thank Chris Brown.
Or blame him, your choice.