Chris Brown’s Welcome to My Life is one of the strangest music documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s star-studded but sort of sketchy. Brown is compared to Michael Jackson several times in the first 20 minutes by everyone from DJ Khaled to Mary J. Blige to members of his own family. His lawyer Mark Geragos, who led Jackson’s defense team for a time during his molestation trial, is ever-present. The flick starts out with Brown and his family reliving the shock of sudden celebrity as a teen who came from nothing, but after a while, it takes a turn. Brown gives a harrowing step-by-step account of what happened in the car with Rihanna on the night of the 2009 VMAs, insisting that the two had a history of volatile scraps and that he’d been egged into this one, though he owns the guilt and stigma for the assault. Khaled calls it a test of the kid’s character, and Mike Tyson appears to deliver a quick word about the dangers of limitless resources and refusing to take no for an answer, presumably speaking abstractly about his early-’90s rape conviction and three-year stint in a correctional facility. At multiple points, I literally yelled “What!?” at the television, shocked that multiple adults thought this was good for Brown’s beleaguered public profile.
Brown is hoarse and glassy-eyed in spots, lucid but struggling through the daunting business of owning his many faults, explaining everything from the time he trashed a Good Morning America dressing room after Robin Roberts pressed him about abuse on air — he says he ran out to the street with his shirt off that day to keep from doing anything worse inside — to kicking Xanax and lean habits to the time he got dumped by model Karrueche Tran for giving her 30 minutes notice to breaking news that he’d fathered a child during a break in the relationship. He sees his daughter Royalty as the key to his salvation; the documentary ends with the singer coming off probation and basking in her unconditional love.
Welcome to My Life is supposed to be redemptive, but there’s something dismaying about watching all the dirt line up. Scarier still is what happened after the film wrapped: Karrueche filed for a restraining order after alleging Brown threatened her and her friends, and Billboard ran a bombshell exposé citing former members of Brown’s team who accused their employer of being physically violent, irresponsible with money, and addicted to drugs. Messy though it may be, Welcome to My Life feels like damage control. “They should be talking about how I’m the baddest motherfucker on the stage instead of [how] I’m the baddest motherfucker in the courtroom,” Brown says at one point, though he acknowledges that his own recklessness is his biggest obstacle. (The most illuminating scene is one where he says abuse is “learned behavior,” remembering the boyfriend who brutalized his mother through his childhood.)
If Brown feels persecuted, his clout doesn’t reflect it. His singles still go platinum, and he remains the go-to guy rappers call when they need a sweet voice singing about dirty deeds on the hook. But last week’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon might kill Brown’s lengthy streak of Top 5 Billboard 200 openings on a lofty conceit: Heartbreak is a double album comprising 40 proper songs and five bonus tracks. At a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, it runs twice as long as the movie. Brown encouraged fans to ramp up album sales in an Instagram post showing them how to exploit the current RIAA rules, but the Tuesday-night Halloween release date cut his first-week haul in half despite the fact that, since Billboard considers ten song downloads to be an equivalent album sale, every iTunes purchase of the full $16.99 album technically counts as four. The album has more problems than what day of the week it came out though.
The endlessly loyal #TeamBreezy supports the singer through even his darkest days, but it’s hard to see the world outside of the diehards willfully setting aside the nearly three hours required to engage with 45 whole Chris Brown songs, especially in a year where his antics have included scheduling a (thankfully canceled) boxing match with the rapper Soulja Boy in Dubai. That is, perhaps, a shame, because there are good songs waiting to be chiseled out of the pile. But the sequencing isn’t particularly inviting. The album’s first disc mixes peppy, dirty sex jams with moody revenge anthems that engage some of Brown’s most grating tendencies as a performer, while the second reckons more humbly with depression.
The first half of Heartbreak is an almost motion-picture-length string of grungy invitations for sex. In 22 songs, Brown manages to compare a woman’s vagina to a dinner date (“Privacy”), PCP (“Questions”), a dog (“Roses”), the book 50 Shades of Grey (“Confidence”), water (“To My Bed,” via Plies), a river, an ocean (“Hope You Do”), a door (“Pull Up”), a cake (“Party”), a night light (“Sensei”), a waterfall (“Summer Breeze”), and China white (“Pills and Automobiles”). Brown’s overtures might elicit a chuckle in small doses, but spread this thickly, they come off dry. What’s more, the biggest hooks on the disc are borrowed, with bits cribbed from 2pac’s “California Love,” Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” (via Earth, Wind and Fire), Donell Jones’s “Where I Wanna Be,” and more. (Later, disc two interpolates OutKast’s “Rosa Parks,” Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.”) The singles bang, as do “Pull Up,” “Tempo,” and “Lost and Found,” but the rest feels like autopilot.
When Chris Brown stops fixating on sex in hallways, drunken hookups, and girls who mix cocaine and painkillers, Heartbreak’s concept and value come into focus. The somber “Hurt the Same” kicks off a stream of breakup tracks that put the singer’s pleading tenor to good use. Charts notwithstanding, Chris Brown is better at shattered, jilted reflection and hot yearning than the raunchy goon anthems and EDM bangers that keep the cheese on his burgers. “Deuces,” “Don’t Judge Me,” and “New Flame” mop the floor with “Loyal,” “Turn Up the Music,” etc. On Heartbreak, the can’t-get-you-outta-my-head vibe of “Nowhere” and the cheater’s apology song “Enemy” land smoother than snark about exes on “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows about you / And they shouldn’t fucking know about you”). But who’s wading 25–35 tracks into a 45-song set to find them?
The easy criticism of most double albums is that there is no wrong a little whittling and editing couldn’t do. But Heartbreak on a Full Moon is more than just a bloated studio album. It’s a two-year undertaking beset by loud, obvious red flags — six singles stalling out under the Top 40, a leak of 46 songs and demos, a life coach alleging he was beat up, a touring manager who bailed on a European trek between cities, saying she feared for her safety. Chris Brown needs to do and say dramatically less and he needs to hear “no” more often — what’s true of the man is true of the music. There’s a solid 50–60 minutes of good songs scattered across Heartbreak on a Full Moon’s nearly four dozen tracks and another hour and change worth of proof Chris Brown can rattle off a passable hook in his sleep.
But the greatest artists of all time don’t shoot from the hip. They are good stewards to their gifts. They curate their work carefully. They don’t rest easy on raw talent. They push themselves. They constantly aspire to more. They command respect by earning it and serving it. The “baddest motherfuckers” around don’t need to convince us of what they are. Greatness radiates from even the smallest gestures and details. Chris Brown shows flashes of this potential — the footwork alone in the “Party” video is phenomenal — and then blows the buzz on an album too padded with filler or another mortifying public scandal. Something is always off. He still has yet to deliver a solo album worth all the fawning or the fuss, and after eight tries, I’m starting to think he’ll be one of those artists whose classic is their greatest-hits collection, who could’ve done so much more if he could only get out of his own way. There’s time for him to pull it together if he wants … but does he?