Artist: Chris Brown
Format: Physical and download
Spotify: UK Extended edition
Let’s get this over with: Chris Brown is not a nice man. He’s a violent ex-con, he has bar brawls, he whines. I wouldn’t want to know him. His last album was very annoying in this respect because it was extremely good.
“All popstars are horrible” is probably a bit true- most of them are probably not necessarily people I’d want to spend hours with but there’s a line between being an egoist or an extrovert and being Chris Brown. If, say, Kanye West was your friend’s diva-y boyfriend then he’d be annoying and you’d probably try not to go to the pub with him or get cornered at a party to talk about whatever he’s into in massive, intense depth for three hours without being able to get another drink but he’d otherwise just be any regular idiot Goldsmiths student. Lady Gaga would be your friend who you can’t go on a night out with without ending up holding their hair out of their face while they vomit and cry about things wrong with the world and/or men. She and Kanye would probably date, in some irresistably nuclear fusion of awfulness.
Chris Brown would be the dude who, had you known him, you’d have a restraining order out on. Sure, he seemed really cute and sweet for ages but there are things that stop you knowing people and one of them is violent assault.
F.A.M.E., his last album, seemed to provide the solution to how to continue to have a career despite that; lead single ‘Deuces’ showcased something far better calculated than the (disastrous, excruciatingly cringeworthy and wholly unlistenable) ‘Changed Man’ whereby Brown was past trying to return to being a spotless teen idol and had instead decided to be a villain. There was no space in pop for a swoony crooner who’s violent to their partner but an out-and-out villain was a different story. Non-apologetic, with the Tyga verse bingo’ing every scorecard- there have been very few lines in the last ten years better than I’m a dick/so it shouldn’t be that hard to swallow and anyone who can use like Tina did Ike in the limo/it finally hit me as a line to dump someone in a guest verse of a Chris Brown song and actually have Chris Brown release it… well, it’s not nice but it’s art.
I have never expected my popstars to be nice. I’ve never even expected them to be good, on a moral level- I want them to be and I never feel great about liking music made by awful human beings but having liked Norwegian black metal while being vehemently anti-racist and anti-libertarian I know that I don’t expect to get my values from pop stars and that even though I may disagree with someone about everything, if their music isn’t propaganda for their views then I can reconcile listening to it with my own morals. And I really enjoyed F.A.M.E.– if there were bits that got whiny and apologetic they were hidden beneath enough tunes that were either totally content-free (‘Yeah x3’) or being out-and-out nasty like the aforementioned ‘Deuces’ to ease it through with only a few skips.
Things have been different since that album, though. Villain Chris has been oddly rehabilitated, like making a good record as a bad guy meant he had to be a good guy again, which isn’t true at all. From his reconnection with Rihanna to featuring extensively in guest spots and managing to duet with Justin Bieber, something else is going on. He’s meant to be… likeable again. The thing about me not necessarily needing popstars to be people I admire or respect personally or would even want to be in a room with is only mitigated by their lack of expecting or needing me to in order to empathise with their music- I wouldn’t want to hear a sultry slow jam by Mayhem.
Which is where Fortune comes in. It’s a mess of generic electro-r’n’b, with 2012’s requisite inappropriate and badly handled bass-vworp garnished liberally around the place and a lot of seduction tracks. Seduction, despite being the primary goal of at least two thirds of popular music, is surprisingly hard to achieve in a track; when it works then the listener is breathless putty in the hands of the song and when it fails, it’s unintentionally hilarious or just gross. For most artists, it has to be done in small, intense bursts- sexiness is sexy for three-to-six minutes but an hour of breathiness is likely to dilute it ineffectively.
These are widely known principles soundly grounded in logic and the general trends of both pop music and pornography but ones with which Chris Brown is not familiar- Fortune was delayed 6 months and he seems to have spent that time loading up the extended edition with 22 whole tracks- ten more than most albums, six more than most extended editions. Long albums can be great but it takes a lot of skill and a driven concept to carry them off usually, which if I’m totally honest, is not immediately obviously here.
If that paragraph didn’t sound enticing enough then let’s talk about the second track, Bassline (link is to Spotify- the album isn’t available on YouTube for some reason related to the record company presumably not wanting anyone to hear it) and have a good long think about why anyone thought that ‘bassline’ was a good metaphor for ‘penis,’ as in ‘get butt naked to my’, which doesn’t even make anatomical sense. Flo Rida would not dignify that with a track, which is a benchmark of how bad an idea it is and it’s almost hard to believe he’d consider opening anything with a Bugatti-based riff on ‘The Wheels On The Bus,’ a song surely not even Prince could make sexy.
Sexiness is, as I said above, something a lot more than a bassline and a beat- crooning doesn’t automatically drop trow and careful quality is always better than shovel-grade filler if you’re going to in any way refer to your or anyone else’s genitalia in song; bizarre lyrical tropes and Will.I.Am distortion are a really unfortunate set up for an album whose lyrical content is already extremely distracting in places- these songs aren’t bad because they’re by Chris Brown or because of anything he’s done (although him being him enhances the creepiness a lot- more on that story later) but just because they’re really dodgy shag songs and the more times a lyrical clanger hits you, the more you listen for them until by the end of track 12 I was struggling to take any of the lines seriously.
‘Bassline’s impotent attempts at gloomwobble sexiness are probably a bit of a nadir to start on, though- opener ‘Turn Up The Music’ is far more tolerable, in a similar vein to F.A.M.E.‘s vapid-but-oddly-gorgeous ‘Beautiful People.’ Tracks three and four have excellent collaborations- ‘Til I Die’ is full of militant stomp, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa, dedicated to getting high and being a doofus as a lifestyle. I’m not about to let any of them date my daughter but it would fit quite happily in the ‘Deuces’ arc and Nas does the work to make ‘Mirage’ worthwhile, even if it never really becomes more than a serviceable stoner soundtrack.
Unfortunately, these are moments of enjoyment on an album that then decides to start inadvertently bringing the mirth. From ‘Don’t Judge Me,’ which revisits the ‘Changed Man’ motif (‘it was all before I fell for you’) but which represents the last moment before this totally jumps off a cliff, for me- depending on your tolerance for grossness, it’s actually fairly sensitively done and has some admission of wrong and vulnerability (‘I don’t wanna go there, we should never go there’) that mitigates a bit of the cringe reflex.
Not for long, however, will we be left without cringing. No, shake out your shoulders before you venture any further into the album because it’s time for… the sexy songs. ‘2012,’ you might think, ‘that sounds like a party song or possibly a deeply misguided US Olympic team tie-in’ and you would be quite wrong. It is a song about doing the sex, romantically and passionately; he’s going to ‘kiss you on your other set of lips’ and when you return the favour, apparently he’s ‘got that pillow for your knees right here’ which is perhaps not high romance but at least this sounds like an extended ‘lovemaking’ session that’s also kind to your joints.
I was so distracted by ‘2012’ I think I tuned out for a little while, since I found myself only reconnecting when the next song kicked in, a classic slow jam bassline. It opened with ‘You would think we in a waterbed/all the sheets are soaked’ -pardon, what again? Has the roof been leaking? This sounds disgusting, I’m getting up. Chris has other plans though, obviously- ‘I’m glad that I aint gotta work today/cus last night I did the most yet apparently this flooded bedroom is also ‘when we started sexing’. There is a short list of men who can use the word ‘sexing’ in a slow jam, Chris Brown in a leaky submarine is not one of them and also good grief who would want to have sex in a wet bed? I found myself mentally tutting that this must be for the demographic of people who haven’t actually ever had sex.
All this was, obviously, before I saw the title of the song, ‘Biggest Fan’ -mmm, creepy. Especially given the chorus stipulates ‘girl, you better not change your mind’ and the second verse opens with ‘two girls and one champ, ‘no’ is not an option’ for this one-night-only event with an idol. I hate to sound dismissive but if you are a contemporary r’n’b star and your sexually explicit groupie love song is nowhere near as seductive and several million times more consensually dubious than Rainbow’s late-70’s classic All Night Long then something has gone terribly wrong.
The album continues with a little more sex on ‘Sweet Love,’ an insipid ballad that, in the waves of alarm induced by ‘Biggest Fan,’ disappears almost entirely into its own synth line. I did hope ‘Strip,’ with its premise filled with potential for nastiness and Kevin McCall (of ‘Deuces’ fame) guest spot, would be a return to some edginess but it’s like if you wiped any lyrical or musical content off ‘Perfect Gentleman,’ leaving the lobby noise of a late-night joint where no one’s making any real money.
‘Stuck On Stupid’ almost hits mid-tempo but Chris sounds insipid and nothing distracts from the middle eight where he rather underwhelmingly promises that if you told me to go rock climbing/to prove my love to you/you know that I’d die trying -it would take a far kinder heart than mine not to wonder if he shouldn’t complain about the health and safety at his local climbing wall if that’s the case. I started wondering, at this point, if he wasn’t struggling quite a lot to be offered songs and production; he’s had a lot of reciprocal guest spots but if you could write for Bieber or Brown these days then there’s no contest.
‘4 Years Old’ is simply washed out- the sort of ballad you’d find somewhere in the midsection of an *NSync album but with none of their charm and fifteen years too late. Again, it’s just possible Bieber could have carried it off and could even be an offcut from his first LP- if it’s not, it’s certainly engineered from the same genetic code.
Party Hard is better than anything for the preceding five tracks but unfortunately decides to sweeten itself where it could have been a banger; ‘tonight, we gon’ party hard‘ is not a line for a gentle strings-led accompaniment. It’s also appended by the bizarre Sevyn duet ‘Cadillac,’ which is essentially a 60-second fan ballad to Brown but which easily shows enough promise to have been a full track, stripped down and soulful, when it suddenly incongruously cuts out.
All the worse because what it segues into is ‘Don’t Wake Me Up,’ the lead single for the album that mysteriously only wriggles into the tracklist now.
I don’t know how many people in the US have heard Loreen’s marvellous Eurovision-winning wistcore euphoric stormer Euphoria but ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ sounds like a lawsuit for her people.
If you think this review is going on a bit, by the way, we’re at track 14; Trumpet Lights. Fortunately, this one is a laser-striped wobble board of squelchy bass that, had it appeared about seven tracks earlier would have substantially lifted proceedings. It’s meaningless (‘trumpet lights’ indeed) and atonal and to be honest, quite an offensive noise but that’s never, ever been something that should be used to indict music and this is an album highlight by a huge margin. Likewise, the deeply retro ‘Tell Somebody’ actually holds up well as a slow jam- the chorus is a bit worrying, telling the girl that although she’s going to want to tell people about their encounter, she shouldn’t as, according to the verses, everyone’ll want one but by there’s nothing properly clanging in there.
Free Run is passable- there’s some lame self-pity and at 4:01 it’s at least a minute too long without a discernible structure. Follow up Remember My Name is so obviously an Enrique offcut I’d be willing to put money on it- it’s totally unsuitable for Brown, who doesn’t have the smouldering tremulousness to carry it off at all, even when Sevyn joins him again for the middle eight.
Track eighteen and we finally reach something I’m pretty sure was written for Chris. It’s slightly soulful, electronic and snappy and for all it doesn’t go with his current status, being a bubblegum confection, it doesn’t actively make his voice sound washed out or lost either. He’s so played down in a lot of the songs on Fortune it’s almost as though they’re trying to remove him from it, as though making him sound dilute will revive his reputation, rather than just making him seem creepy. Touch Me is a great, grown up sex song that would be better if it was just Sevyn (who features three times and has a fantastic Solange Knowles-esque retro vocal) or an interlude on Last Train To Paris.
‘Key 2 Your Heart,’ however, is all Chris and would have been an air-punch moment on F.A.M.E. -it surfs gloomwobble atmospherically and is as empty a chat up line as any. Which is why it blindsides me that, of all the songs on this juggernaut of mediocrity that could have been an uncertain choice, this is only a UK bonus track. America, this is what you were denied-
The following track, ‘Do It Again’ is another bonus track, despite being a storming (if lyrically insipid) piano-led romp. I don’t know if it’s a look I like on Brown but after ‘Yeah x3’ pulled off gormless party rocking for him, this seems like such an obvious single I found myself getting actively angry it was the penultimate track, second to last only to a dark, breathy radio re-rub of ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ that turns it into a piano house stonker where the most obviously Loreen-lifted bits are stuffed under a rug of enormous synth blasts.
Everything about this album is maddening. From the fact that Interesting Villain Chris Brown has decided to be Generic Dance Popstar Chris Brown and that’s not an option, with his very recent history unable to be amputated from the music, to the fact that at least half of the songs could have been junked and a further three or four produced completely differently to make an annoying, gormless dance album that no one really wanted to like but which had an empty catchiness to it that didn’t require a moral decision.
The intensely misguided moments here, in particular ‘Biggest Fan’s beyond-dodgy lyrical content, are jarring but the incongruous, stupid lyrics that clunk across songs are if not as reprehensible then just as disruptive. The best songs are hidden and the legacy of F.A.M.E. to create an if-not-lovely then at least listenable career for Brown is completely destroyed by unnecessarily overloading a more-than-big-enough album with tracks that must have been rejected by other artists.
It fails as a sexy album, a dance album and definitely as any kind of character rehabilitation. It’s just generic enough to be able to court play and probably ensure another album, which makes it all the more annoying since even my broadly non-moral stance on popstar’s “deservedness” to make music thinks Chris Brown was only allowed to carry on if he shook on the deal that he wasn’t going back to ok. Bored, angry and disappointed with all involved.