Hate him or love him, Chris Brown remains one of the titans of contemporary R&B. With sixth full-length X, he makes a statement commensurate with his lofty stature in the game.
The project features a whopping two discs' worth of new material, for a grand total of 21 tracks. Six singles were released in the lead-up to its arrival: "Fine China," "Don't Think They Know," "Love More," "New Flame," "Loyal" and the title track.
Aaliyah, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross and Usher are among many noteworthy guests to assist Breezy throughout the set, which features production by the likes of Count Justice, Diplo, Freshm3n III and Mel & Mus.
Related: Every Sample on Chris Brown’s “X” Album (An Accidental Music Licensing Lesson)
X Album Review
Personally, I choose not to support him. Not because of any juvenile ideas around haterdom, and certainly not because I'm outside the club and I can't get in. I'm a 32-year-old man with a wife and a daughter and a beard that makes me look like my plane crashed in the Alaskan wilderness and I've had to fight bears to survive. Expensive night clubs seem like a pretty terrible place to be, with or without Chris Brown. I have absolutely no malice towards him, I genuinely hope he has a happy life because he's an actual person and humans should be happy. But there are a lot of artists in the world who make great music and haven't assaulted women. He has, so I'll hand out my support accordingly. It really is that simple.
There's no judgement there because judgement isn't mine to render, and I can't forgive him for his transgressions because forgiveness isn't mine to give either. Whether it's what taqueria to buy lunch from, whom we should marry or which artists we spend our money on, we all make our choices. I want a certain world for my daughter and I'd prefer if Chris Brown wasn't in her world. Am I a hypocrite because I won't play any Chris Brown in our house but I will play James Brown? Yep, I sure am. And tomorrow I might decide I shouldn't play James Brown either and I should play Breezy, or neither, or both, and then change my mind again the next week, and then change it again in ten years.
Being a human in a world full of other humans is an inherently complicated and messy business, only the naive and unthinking believe there's any definitively right or wrong answers. In that stew of human mess all we can really do is allow each other the freedom to make our own choices. So if you feel differently about Chris Brown, you have that same freedom, and I'm certainly not going to convince you otherwise. If I did, it'd be the first time in the history of modern civilization something written on the internet actually changed anyone's mind.
All of which makes reviewing Brown's new X album a very complicated business. As I've written eleven million times now, there's no such thing as an objective music review. This isn't math, it's art. Whether you're a music critic or a hardcore fan, everyone brings a lifetime of experience, knowledge and beliefs to every song and album they've ever heard. Is Boyz II Men definitively, objectively the greatest R&B group of all-time? No, but they were playing when I felt my first boobs, so basically yes, yes they are. Listening to Yeezus when you've never heard Kanye before is a very different experience than if you've been listening to him since College Dropout. You get the point.
Most critics like to write behind this shield of objectivity because it makes them feel superior and professional, but really that's bullshit, and readers are too smart to not smell the shit. You know when someone's got a personal opinion and is trying to bury it under a veneer of objectivity, it inevitably leaks out through the cracks in their writing. So that's why we're over 500 words into this quasi-review and I haven't mentioned a single song on X yet. You deserve not to be lied to, we can't have a honest conversation about Chris Brown and this album when I'm hiding the fact that I consciously refuse to buy his music or see his shows.
Case in point, "Songs on 12 Play". There was a time just about a year ago when that might have become my most played Chris Brown song ever, in no small part because I had an ongoing love for all things R. Kelly, and "Songs on 12 Play" is in no subtle way an ode to Kelly, right down to the samples. It's Brown's attempt to directly place himself and Trey Songz in the timeline of R&B superstars. And then I really read about the full, frankly horrible array of crimes R. Kelly had been accused of, the alleged devastation he'd caused in people's lives. I was ashamed I hadn't taken them more seriously before, had brushed them off so I could continue to laugh at Trapped in the Closet. And now, no matter how musically well-crafted it might be, my shame haunts "Songs on 12 Play" too heavily for me to enjoy it, and the same is obviously true for "Drown In It".
On the flipside, I'm just a few hand-written letters away from being a Kendrick Lamar stan. Including Kendrick on X has to be a conscious decision by Brown to rope in more overtly hip-hop heads like myself, and give the album a truly artistic cut that could get the Grammy committee thinking about Song of the Year. I can't speak for the Grammys, but personally, Brown's plan worked. "Autumn Leaves" is the only track on this album I've found myself coming back to, trying to uncover all of its levels.
Of course, the vast majority of X isn't nearly so serious. First and foremost Chris Brown is a pop star, and his greatest strength is in his ability to musically shape shift. There's really no such thing as a definitive Chris Brown sound, he's impressively able to bend his voice and style around nearly every kind of record, and the album contains nearly every style in the current musical climate. There are EDM-esque beat breakdowns (title track "X", "Don't Be Gone Too Long"), hip-hop oriented club hits ("Loyal", "Love Some More", etc.), live instrument driven songs in the Quincy Jones tradition ("Fine China"), outright ballads ("See You Around", "Don't Think They Know"), mid-tempo jams ("Body Shots", "Do Better") and more. There aren't many singers who have both the vocal ability and range of delivery to traverse a musical landscape that vast, but Brown does it all while impressively managing to maintain a real cohesion throughout X.
Chris Brown's talent is undeniable, I'm certainly not downplaying it, and in many ways that talent has never been more undeniable than on this album. But I'm under no obligation to support anyone because of their music is "too good to ignore," just like no one's obligated to support me because my writing's too good to ignore (or, as I know many think, too terrible to ignore). If I was 17 and had grown up with his music and felt my first boobs to "Take You Down" I might make a different choice. If I didn't have a daughter I might make a different choice. If for any number of reasons both Chris Brown the artist, Chris Brown the person and Chris Brown's music connected with me more strongly I might make a different choice. But at least for now, I still won't listen to his music outside of my job requirements, and I still won't support him with album or ticket sales.
We all make our choices. Make yours.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins