"I swear to God I’m moving on," Chris Brown sings in the title track of his sixth album X (out today, September 16). He has insisted as much since he announced X early last year. Brown’s voice floats above a funky bass line and romantic strings on the LP’s first single "Fine China," bringing to mind Michael Jackson in the early, more innocent days of his solo career. It’s his best impression of the King of Pop yet. However, the hook - "It’s alright, I’m not dangerous" - feels like a somewhat calculated answer to the questions Brown is still facing regarding the 2009 Rihanna incident: What has he learned since then? How does he intend to change? How will he deal with critics?
Brown has released three lackluster albums since that time (Graffiti, F.A.M.E. and Fortune), where he doubled down on both garish Eurohouse beats and his aggression during their most petulant moments. X‘s enduring hit, the Ty Dolla $ign-written "Loyal" is a more finessed example of how the singer’s outlook on women would become horribly retrograde. (Lil Wayne and Tyga join him in flashing money to steal girls from other men, only they all sound offended once they’re the ones left behind.) Despite what "Loyal" hinted, though, X is actually an uneven, though still welcome attempt showing that the troubled Brown wants to change.
X can do without the songs that try hardest to sell Brown as a bonafide star. He shadows R. Kelly as an R&B Lothario-in-training during "Drown In It," though the song’s bedroom-as-ocean conceit bombs when his mentor calls himself not a merman, but "a male mermaid." (The preceding track, "Songs on 12 Play," actually has Brown and Trey Songz weaving in references to R. Kelly’s 1993 debut - a far better attempt at showcasing Kelly’s genius than his own cameo.) Brown also tries to regain crowd control in club-minded songs like "Came to Do" and "Body Shots," though it’s tough to ignore how tired he seems of such neon-lit settings. They, like "Don’t Be Gone Too Long," could actually use some Ariana Grande.
Such hollow moments, lumped right into the middle of X, threaten to drown out Brown’s worthwhile efforts to win back the public’s trust. Fourth track "New Flame" shines because of how he and grown men Usher and Rick Ross melt into puddles just thinking about love in this club. Songs that address Brown’s uglier reputation are tougher to like, though they still feel useful. "Do Better" is about feeling paralyzed by self-hatred, despite Brandy bursting in to make it sound as if Brown still has a fighting chance for survival. In the stark "Autumn Leaves" he confesses of feeling "safer in your violence," only for an outraged Kendrick Lamar to size him up: “When the bright cameras are still cramming in your face and it provoke / you to act mannish, just stay planted, because you reaping what you sow.”
X can feel messy, especially after the Diplo-produced title track, which opens the album. Brown’s voice appears in between club sirens and elastic rave drops, growing frantic as he deals with a betraying ex entering the picture. His voice snaps one moment ("I swear to God I’m moving on!"), sounds despairing the next ("Yiii-e-iiii-e-ikes, I’ve been with the wrong cro-ow-ow-ow-wd") and then darts around as nimbly as his body typically moves on the dance floor. It all lends to a well-executed club banger that feels simultaneously like a private moment - that, and a reminder of how a nightclub can be a place where drama brews, brawls break out and, if he’s not careful, he can get tangled in it all.
X isn’t likely to grant Brown full-on redemption, but at least - and at long last - he sounds willing to work for it.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
- Christina Lee
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