Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t stop Chris Brown from putting out R&B hits. That seems to be the motto of his latest studio album, X. It’d be an understatement to say that it’s been a long time in the making – Brown has been hinting at his sixth LP since 2012. But it’s here at last: a staggering 17-track album featuring guest appearances from his R&B friends – all 12 of them, in fact. Despite this ridiculous track listing however, X isn’t a poor comeback from the troublesome singer.
The album seems to be divided into three themes, marked by the interludes. There’s the crazy-in-love Chris, the sexually explicit Chris and the street thug Chris who sings about money, girls and life regrets. We see that side in the album’s opener, X. Produced by Diplo, it’s got a haunting start that builds up to an explosive bass drop. Brown is rather brazen in this one, as he stresses ‘I swear to God I’m moving on!’ . His vocal ability has improved too – they’re exceptionally smooth, miles away from the adolescent who graced the R&B stage a decade ago. It’s the same deal with New Flame, where we see a more soulful side to Brown. His wonderful falsettos and ad lib are flanked by crooning back up singers, who only add to that ‘smooth gentleman’ effect he’s got going on. It’s a powerful collaboration that features Usher and Rick Ross – and all the artists hold their own. The same can’t be said for Loyal though, which features Lil’ Wayne and Tyga. It’s basically just a standard brag-fest about who’s got the most money, girls and booze. Oh, but no matter how much they have, those pesky hoes just can’t stay loyal, can they?!
When Brown breaks out those sexual innuendoes however, we move onto another theme. The techno R&B track Add Me In is rife with synths and dance beats, as Brown makes dirty puns out of math lingo. We can draw comparisons to Michael Jackson here – Brown subtly takes on the distinct vocal characteristics of the late singer. Some of the lyrics are so sexy it works, but other times it just leaves you cringing. Songs On 12, featuring Trey Songz, is all sweet talking falsetto and some pretty heavy seducing. Direct lyrics like ‘with your permission, let me start your ignition’ can either have the girls squealing or shuddering. But perhaps the most painful song of all is Drown In It with R. Kelly. Even the smooth production and sexy melodies can’t disguise the crude lyrics about drowning in female ejaculation. Some may find it a turn-on, but a majority might be left squirming in their seats…and not in a good way, either.
It’s not to say that the album is all bad. There a few gems in it, namely Autumn Leaves featuring Kendrick Lamar. It’s a beautiful melancholy ballad with just a hint of Spanish guitar. One word to describe this track would be ‘reflective’: we hear a remorseful Chris Brown who really wants to wipe his slate clean, but just seem to move on. Lamar raps on Brown’s behalf by starting off calm, before building up to a powerful and emotive verse. It’s as though another side of the artist has been unleashed, and all that bottled up hurt and anger comes pouring out in the form of a song. Do Better is another winning duet featuring husky singer Brandy. The two artists sing about a relationship that’s on the rocks, and Brown musters up enough emotion so that you can’t help but empathise with him as he moans, ‘you don’t love me’. And then theres X‘s token pop hit: Don’t Be Gone Too Long. It’s the duet featuring radio’s favourite pop diva, Ariana Grande – that is, in the version that Brown has released. Although his voice is barely heard above Grande’s powerful vocals, it’s still a dance-pop ballad that works, flanked by ad-libs and gentle harmonies. What we get on the album version however, is a different story. Featuring a nameless female singer, it sounds almost like a rough demo, so horribly auto-tuned to the point where Brown’s robotic voice is unrecognisable. It sounds bare without Grande carrying the verses – so why put a song on an album when it sounds essentially, unfinished?
One thing that sticks out is that Brown has shed his pop-infused sound. Gone are the radio-friendly dance tracks like Turn Up the Music, or soulful pop ballads like No Air. In his sixth album, Brown has veered more into street territory – and while it’s still danceable, it’s devoid of catchy hooks and sing-along elements. While Don’t Be Gone Too Long has potential, a lot of the tracks aren’t suitable for radio play. Die-hard Breezy fans will be pleased that he’s making the music he wants, but as for the rest of us? Well, we might get a little bored.