“It is an honor to introduce the future of R&B … his name is Chris Brown!”
That’s the prophecy producer Bryan-Michael Cox laid out almost a decade ago now, in his spoken intro to a smooth, Baby-Casanova joint called “Winner” off Brown’s 2005 self-titled debut. On a very literal level, it came true: It is now 2014 and Brown is still making records; his sixth, X, is out today. But throughout the past decade — an occasionally wildly innovative one in pop, hip-hop, and R&B — Brown’s music has stayed so stubbornly risk-averse that to think someone once considered Chris Brown “the future” of anything now seems as laughable as a Y2K shelter. At best, Brown has been an accurate barometer of the genre’s present — his discography provides a clean arc from its poppy, Usher-reigned Jive Records era to its post-808s Auto-Tune experimentation to its current obsession with trap-inflected, minimalist beats in the style of DJ Mustard. More often, though, Brown has proven himself to be a serviceable mimic, dancing breezily over ground freshly broken by braver and more interesting artists — not R&B’s future so much as a defanged, smoothed-over reflection of its hyper-recent past.
Due to both management troubles and Brown’s prison sentence, X’s release has been pushed back repeatedly — it was initially slated to come out all the way back in July 2013, and its first single, the nimbly retro “Fine China,” came out almost 17 months ago. This has given Brown plenty of time to hype the album: “The record pays homage to the Stevie Wonders, the Michael Jacksons, the Sam Cookes,” he told Rolling Stone last March. “There’s a lot of live instruments, and a lot less Auto-Tune.” Brown made similar promises of Prince-inspired innovation and MJ-size grandeur before his disappointing 2009 album Graffiti, which revealed him as someone who thought making an “artistic” record simply meant posing for a cover photo with friends of MC Skat Kat. Now that he’s had plenty of time to put X together, though, has Brown finally made his opus — his Sign o’ the Times, his Songs in the Key of Life, his promised homage to the glory days of soul? Well, no. I am here to report the very shocking news that the Chinese Democracy of Alpha-Bro R&B is largely a joyless, purgatorially long slog of faux confessions and unimaginative innuendo.
X is without a doubt Brown’s darkest album; we’re a long way from the carefree vibe of early singles like “With You” and “Forever.” Its moody, sometimes downright seething vibe owes much to the Weeknd and his (former?) enemy Drake, though with a few requisite dubstep drops thrown in for radio’s sake. “I keep my secrets in a safe house, better if I don’t speak,” he sings on the slow-boiling, Diplo-produced title track, and this tight-lipped, suppressed quality has been his aesthetic stance from the start. Despite his superficially brooding pose, you do not learn anything new, interesting, or specific about Brown’s demons from listening to his music; even the few songs on Graffiti that supposedly addressed his doomed relationship with Rihanna were delivered with a smug, detached quality that revealed nothing so much as a fear of genuine vulnerability. (The closest thing X comes to a truly confessional track, the suspiciously fall-hued “Autumn Leaves,” add some superfluous female moans in the mix as if to say, “No homo.”) Brown has been a star for almost ten years now, but he is still a strangely faceless presence in his own music; I have often forgotten halfway through a Chris Brown song that Chris Brown is singing it. At least his brother-in-mediocrity Jason Derulo does us the service of compulsively shouting his own name.
Topics on X range from women Brown is fucking to women who are fucking him over. (The ubiquitous radio hit “Loyal” takes the cake for pop music’s most out-of-touch double standard of the year, unless we entertain the absurd notion that all of the songs on X are about the same girl.) There are some admirable attempts: I love the Stevie vibes and sultry arpeggiated synths and of “Add Me In,” but Brown cock-blocks himself with some tragically corny lyrics that amount to a never-ending epic metaphor about … math: “Your love is trigonometry … Substitution / Add me in / Multiply by love / Is that too much?” It’s plenty, Breezy, thanks. Try as he might, Brown takes himself way too seriously to pull off the whole silly-stupid-sexy vibe popularized/problematized by R. Kelly, and he practically admits this himself on the brazenly derivative “Songs on 12 Play” — which is less of an homage to Kelly’s debut album than a literal cut-and-paste job of his most famous lyrics. Brown sings about starting your ignition and feelin’ on yo booty, and then when he runs out of sexy things he resorts to shrugging, “Fiesta! Fiesta!” When the actual Kelly shows up a few songs later, he effortlessly out-sings and out–R. Kellys Brown in a single breath: “I wanna drown in it, just like a male mermaid!” Brown is so adept at quoting other people’s ideas that I half-expected him to respond, “Water is the essence of wetness,” but I am sorry to say he does not.
X has its moments, but they are mostly due to the more distinct and talented artists Brown surrounds himself with. Kendrick Lamar goes full beast mode on “Autumn Leaves,” resuscitating the song as dramatically as he did Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” at the Grammys. A smoky duet with Brandy, “Do Better,” provides a decent if too-little-too-late corrective to the female perspective absent from “Loyal.” There is a case to be made that there doesn’t really need to be one — or even that we should not hold Brown’s personal indiscretions against his music. Being a music fan very often involves supporting the art of talented people who do terrible things, and every listener has his or her own ways of navigating — or ignoring — that moral quandary. But Brown has never made music that’s good or interesting or challenging enough to make it much of a quandary; if you have even the slightest distaste for his aggro, misogynistic persona, his bland output is conveniently easy to ignore.
But maybe we’re all right now in the process of learning that ignoring what makes you uncomfortable isn’t always the best solution — in which case, maybe there is some sort of cosmic justice in X’s infinite delays. There has probably never been a less welcoming week for a new Chris Brown album than this one, when so many people are reexamining the power structures of a culture that tacitly supports and inevitably silences violence against women — one in which a chillingly clear line that can be drawn between a singsongy playground chant of “these hoes ain’t loyal” and the surveillance footage of a woman’s lifeless, rag-doll body being dragged facedown out of an elevator. As frustrating as it is that in the midst of this cultural moment, next week’s No. 1 album in the country will probably belong to a man who beat his famous girlfriend within an inch of her life and then was still allowed to blithely carry on with his career, I take some hope in how backwards-thinking and behind the times X already sounds. A decade ago, it would be difficult to imagine the scale of the public outcry against Ray Rice and the NFL, or the fact that a Lady Gaga video could be scrapped because of fresh internet outrage over R. Kelly’s past crimes. But the tide is shifting, and people are demanding that large cultural institutions and individual voices alike are held accountable for their actions. The future of R&B does not belong to Chris Brown, and neither does the future of American masculinity. X is a snapshot of the darker side of its present; in a distant but no longer impossible to imagine future, it will be a relic of its past.