Chris Brown always has some making up to do. More than other artists, it’s hard to hear his songs and not consider the real-life circumstances—his assault on Rihanna in 2009 and the subsequent series of public fuck-ups, including his D.C. assault case, which resulted in a 108-day jail sentence. His relationships and his music are eternally linked. Mentioning the worst sometimes feels like you’re failing at forgiveness. Forgiving him feels like conceding. It’s everything like a break-up. So when Chris sings lyrics like this on his sixth album, X, it seems deliberately twofold: “I’m starting to hate me a little more and more each day/I don’t know me/It’s like I can’t get out of my own way/You don’t love me/You don’t love me/If I knew better, I would do better.”
Playing off this theme of loss and Ex-Factors, X explores the fallout of a failed relationship in all its phases—the fresh grief, self-pity parties, real partying and fake forgetting. Mostly, though, the album dwells on the initial post-breakup aftershock, purging and the holding-on part, versus the smart introspection that comes later. Chris attempts to move forward and find new love. He sort of does but gets stuck looking back. He tries to take blame, but it’s overshadowed by bravado. He’s sorry, but not that sorry. He’s a mess of ego, and that frustrating emotional clutter is what makes this album a compelling listen.
The two greatest loves of Brown’s 25-year-old life (Rihanna and Karrueche) have wreaked havoc on his psyche. A homemade video titled “The Real Chris Brown” that popped up in 2012, showed Chris confessing. In it, he considered whether it’s possible to unconditionally love two women at once and said, “I don’t wanna hurt either or. I’m not trying to be a player. I’m not trying to be a dog, none of that… I just care too much.” Which is funny because in his music lately, he’s been prone to player behavior, as if that’s where he enjoys the freedom of being the angry bad guy without consequence.
The macho posturing is the most flagrant on his groupie takedown “Loyal,” an obnoxious NicNac production and slow-building sleeper hit that you still hear everywhere. Here, in a matter of a few bars, Chris manages to flaunt new money (“Just got rich”), steal another man’s girl (“Took a broke nigga bitch”) and consider upgrading a groupie’s status before deciding against it because of her lack of coins. You’re forced to love it, conditionally.
Chris has a knack for making memorable songs on forgettable albums (“Don’t Wake Me Up” and “Turn Up The Music” on 2012’s Fortune) For a while, he coasted with elliptical-friendly Euro R&B like “Forever,” “Don’t Wake Me Up” and “Yeah 3X,” all great guilty pleasures. Those international club anthems seem part of his DNA now, but rather than the vexing rule (like on Fortune) they’re the welcome exception on X and feel less forced—”Body Shots” features a weird-cool clash of vocal spasms and synths. The album instead opts mostly for straight R&B and pop from a mixed bag of producers (NicNac, Danja, Anonymous), and it’s either snappy club tracks or the type of depressive, moping records currently resonating with Eeyore’s favorite millennials.
Women are clearly capable of being the dickhead in a breakup. Often the presumption with Chris is that this is the case and that he’s suffered the greater loss (the “bitch, I loved you!” approach). The title track for X, a creepy Diplo track that’s equal parts emo R&B and chaotic EDM, calls out a deceitful, callous ex: “If you’re only as good as the company you keep, then I’ma blame you for what they say about me.” It’s wonderfully eerie and scornful. (For best results, take two teaspoons of it after listening to Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”).
When Chris lets down his guard a bit, the results are freakishly good. The sensitivity chip that’s absent in “Loyal” is found in “Autumn Leaves,” which is solemn, calming and reflective and features a knock-out verse from Kendrick Lamar that’s full of pent-up poetic rage. Here’s where Chris admits the comfort of Her pain: “I been bleeding in your silence/I feel safer in your violence,” a line that feels meant to make you uncomfortable. He’s still blaming Her, but he’s willing to be weak and this honesty suits him well. “If you leave this time, I feel that you’ll be gone for good,” he sings. “So I hold on like leaves and fall to what is left.”
There’s a similar beautiful bitterness on the minimalist, jungly “Do Better,” where CB and Brandy trade guilt and blame. Brandy sounds powerful as usual while sharing the woman’s POV: “I see you happy now/You’re the life of the party, acting out/Ain’t seen you in months/You ain’t call me once/And all your boys say that I ain’t shit/Ain’t they the same ones lost in the club/Niggas is basic.” (Note: the best songs are his duets with women: Brandy on “Do Better” and Jhene Aiko on “Drunk Texting”).
In comparison to his contemporaries, Chris is a master adapter, which is good and bad. Pinpointing his signature sound is futile. He’s excelled with hard & B records, and he’s made pleasurable sex songs, though it’s not his specialty like it is Trey Songz’s.
Because R&B dudes have some unspoken pact to recycle R. Kelly, two songs on X pay homage to him. “Songs on 12 Play” finds Chris and Trey stringing together snippets of various R. Kelly songs: “We gon’ be bumping and grinding/Seems like you’re ready to sex me, baby, baby.” Then on “Drown In It,” Kelly himself comes in to swap bad sex metaphors and position himself as a “male mermaid” ready to go down under. Let’s forget those two songs happened.
Vocally and visually, we’ve seen flashes of greatness in Chris Brown. But there was (still is) a hope that he’ll fully claim the Michael Jackson torch that seems destined for him. X should fall in the top three of his discography thus far because as messy as it is, it sounds like progress. —Clover Hope (@clovito)