Monday, September 15, 2014

album review: 'x' by chris brown

One of the hardest thing for any critic to do is to separate one's feelings regarding the artist from the art itself. It's something that can be anathema to some people, because to them the artist's presence is so intertwined with what the art is that they can't see the separation, and thus they perceive any attack on the art as an attack on the artist, an attack that is often undeserved or might be considered unfair.

That's not quite the case here - because Chris Brown's music is easily the least interesting and least hateable element of his persona. It's not worth my time to go through the banner list of all the terrible things this guy has said and done over the past five years, as well as the fact that he's clearly learned nothing from it thanks to a total lack of accountability, but all of that can distract many critics from judging the art fairly instead of judging the artist. And it gets even harder when it becomes plainly apparent the artist's life and experience has influenced his songwriting, so where does one draw the line?

Well, here's my policy: it becomes important to understand why certain songwriting choices were made, but ultimately the art has to stand on its own regardless of the artist's life/experiences. And on that note, Chris Brown has made some of the worst music of the past five years. And when I say 'worst', I mean that Graffiti and Fortune were some of the worst albums of their respective years and deserve nothing more than scorn and derision because they are absolute torture to listen through. Even Forgiving All My Enemies had its fair share of turds like 'Deuces' and 'Look At Me Now' and 'She Ain't You' interspersed between the upbeat dance tracks that were the saving grace of that record. 

And thus I've had a certain amount of morbid curiosity in looking up X, the long-delayed record from Chris Brown that promised to go more towards R&B than dance pop - which made sense, given the changing trends on the charts, but every single one of the singles was giving me a really bad feeling about this record. But I figured I'd try to be fair and give Chris Brown the chance he heartily does not deserve and I listened to this record: how is it?

Well, it's better than Fortune and Graffiti, but that isn't exactly an endorsement, because it's a Chris Brown album displaying all the problems that haven't gone away in album after album, which ultimately consign it to the books of mediocrity, at least in my books. That being said, it's an album that in its deep cuts shows Chris Brown starting to become a bit of a better songwriter, albeit not consistently enough to make this album worth salvaging.

So let's start with the biggest problem on this album: Chris Brown himself. I've said in the past that when placed against his contemporaries in modern R&B, Chris Brown rarely brings a unique stage presence and personality to the table, and the worst possible thing he could do is invite those comparisons. And yet nobody told Chris Brown that, because he chose to overload this album with contemporaries in R&B and hip-hop who are significantly more interesting than he is, especially given the heavy abuse of Autotune and pitch correction on Chris Brown's voice. The first and most egregious example is 'New Flame', where Chris Brown is joined by Rick Ross dropping a marginally interesting verse blending sports and luxury rap imagery, but he's also paired with Usher - and Usher blows Chris Brown off the stage. It's like the difference between Christina Aguliera and Mariah Carey: Chris Brown makes it look like work, where Usher is all natural talent and makes it look easy and fun - and what's all the more disappointing is that Usher and Chris Brown have little to no interesting harmonies or interplay, which implies they were set up as competition and man, it does not look good for Chris Brown. And the insane thing is that this keeps happening - 'Drown On It' pairs Chris Brown with R. Kelly on an extended song about cunnilingus, and even though we're dealing with a song that's more explicit than either man should be singing given their past, and yet R. Kelly is a good enough performer that he can make his lyrics at least work while Chris Brown just comes across like a moron. Hell, when he gets Trey Songz, the R. Kelly wannabe, on 'Songs On 12 Play' where Trey Songz verse is more explicit, Chris Brown still looks worse! 

The problem is twofold: firstly, the Autotune strips away a lot of Chris Brown's unique vocal personality, and whenever its eased back, he actually sounds a fair bit better; and secondly, Chris Brown has chosen to embrace the aggressive side of his vocal delivery more often than he really should, which not only makes him appear like a real asshole but also serves as more uncomfortable reminders of his past, especially when he starts yelling. It's telling that it takes a collaboration with Akon on 'Came To Do' for Chris Brown to come out ahead, but that's only because Akon took Chris Brown's approach and amped it up to eleven both with the Autotune and aggression to unflattering points. And the exasperating thing is that Chris Brown is still trying to frame himself as an alpha male ladies' man who is never in the wrong, who can behave like a douchebag and never suffer the consequences. And thus when you have 'Do Better', which is well-framed by bringing Brandy on as a harsh counterpoint to Chris Brown and it shows the real pain both inflict on each other in this toxic relationship, and while I can't help but feel the song would work better with Usher over Chris Brown, it manages to play off his aggression in a way that makes the track work. And it's certainly preferable to when Ariana Grande and Jhene Aiko are on their respective tracks, effectively as backing vocals, the former on a song where Chris Brown is in denial about getting left behind and the latter where he behaves like a drunken boor who spends half the song sending sloppy texts and the other half wishing his ex is having the worst sex ever - classy.

And while I'm being sarcastic there, that's honestly my big issue with Chris Brown as a songwriter: nothing close to class approaches the table on his albums. Say what you will about R. Kelly, but he at least tries to sound clever with his explicit imagery or sell it with some believable soul where Chris Brown doesn't seem to put in the effort. Take 'Drown In It', where Chris Brown's lyric to imply heat is 'It's Fahrenheit in here' - that's a unit of temperature that can go well below zero, it doesn't imply heat! Or take songs like 'Add Me In', a song attempting to win over girls with bad math-related double entendres like 'Your love is trigonometry / just trying to solve the whole equation' or 'Baby if we do the math, it will equal up to me!' I can only assume Chris Brown was taking a pre-calculus correspondence course when he wrote those lines, because the bad jokes about these lyrics write themselves! He must have been taking a zoology course too because on the hookup track 'Time For Love', Chris Brown says 'I can be your honeycomb / and we can fly together' - and apparently failing said zoology course, because he can't tell the difference between flies and bees. Or take 'Autumn Leaves', the song where Chris Brown thoroughly blames the girl for the breakup by comparing to his attachment to the relationship to 'holding on like leaves in the fall' - because when you think of stable relationships, you think of a tenuous connection of a leaf to a tree branch in cold weather, which basically implies that when the relationship cools, Chris Brown falls away and then blames the girl for it, or to make things worse, says that 'I feel safer in your violence'. Thank god for the Kendrick Lamar verse that's only peripherally related to the song and more about how he is misrepresented by the media as a thug the more outlandish his content becomes, otherwise the song would be completely irredeemable.

Unfortunately, 'irredeemable' is a perfect adjective to describe the majority of songs whenever Chris Brown wants to talk about bad relationships or his problems with women, mostly thanks to terrible framing or just general incoherence. The title track starts off bad with the oh so charming line 'If you're only as good as the company you keep / then I'm going to blame you for what they say about me' - because it's never your fault, right, Chris? 'Loyal' follows the same narrative throughline, with Chris Brown bragging about stealing a broke guy's girlfriend and then saying how he doesn't screw around with broke women and how 'these hoes ain't loyal' - so which is it, Chris, you're presenting a real mixed message here! Or take 'Stereotype', the song where Chris Brown dumps a girl and says he'd really hate to label her a 'stereotype' - uh, Chris, when the only distinguishing factor for you in your brand of R&B is how much more of a jackass you sound like, maybe you shouldn't throw stones in your glass house. The problem on the majority of these songs is framing: if a song like 'Drunk Texting' was self-aware of how badly the guy looked in this case, it could work, but Chris Brown is nowhere near that subtle - mostly because he doesn't seem to care how badly he looks or take any responsibility for his bad behavior. Outside of 'Do Better', the only song that shows any real maturity is 'See You Around' where he acknowledges he should have been a better boyfriend as he gets dumped and he's going to respect the girl's feelings. 

That's also one of the many songs on this album that switches up the production and instrumentation, which can charitably be described as a mixed bag. The odd and frustrating thing about Chris Brown's production is he can put together some decent melodies that have some dramatic presence, but his choice of tones can really fall flat. The opening title track is a prime example - it starts out as a ghostly mainstream R&B tune with a decent crescendo, but the synth tune for the chorus is an oily chiptune derivative that sounds flat and grating with every wobble. That oily feel to the mix crops up all over this album: the popping on 'Loyal', 'New Flame', the staccato and jerky 'Songs On 12 Play', the reverb-swallowed 'Drown In It', the over-mixed trap-inspired 'Came To Do', and the choppy 'Body Shots' that features both bad pitch-shifting and an attempt to jack the breakdown from Martin Garrix's 'Animals'. And the infuriating thing is that there are some good melodies on this album: the CHVRCHES-esque punch of 'Add Me In', the opening horns on 'Stereotype', the disco-inspired 'Time For Love', the indie-R&B fuzzy guitars on 'Autumn Leaves', the bleak heaviness of 'Do Better', the rollicking groove of 'Don't Be Gone Too Long', and especially the folk-inspired guitars on 'See You Around'. Sure, the guitars occasionally went out of tune with the rest of the mix, but it was different! But the larger problem is one that has plagued every Chris Brown record: the production is terrible. I've already talked about the abuse of Autotune, but there's a hollow clunkiness to this record that feels incredibly clumsy in its attempt to add heaviness, especially with the whooshing sound that always seems to precede Chris Brown's entrance into the songs. 

Look, this album doesn't infuriate me in the same way Fortune and Graffiti do, and it does show marginal signs of improvement, but at the same time, this is not a good record by any sane standards of modern R&B. On nearly every attempt Chris Brown makes to play with the modern R&B and hip-hop greats like Usher or R.Kelly or Kendrick Lamar or even his contemporaries like Trey Songz, he comes out on the bottom - or when I can say I enjoy a Rick Ross verse more than Chris Brown's presence, there's a problem. Yes, he is slowly becoming a better songwriter, but he's nowhere near quality R&B, especially this year. Yeah, if you're a member of Team Breezy - something I will never understand - and you can buy into his emotional investment even when set up against more charismatic artists, you'll probably like this album. But having heard much better R&B from artists featured on this album this year... no, I'm sorry, 4/10 and I'm being generous. I will say this though: Chris Brown has gone on saying this'll be his last album, and while I sincerely doubt that... well, he could have gone out on a worse album than this one, so take that for what it's worth.

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