We might see a grown Chris Brown album yet.
Listening to Chris Brown records is a bit more involved an activity than ingesting your average pop album. Listeners are required to constantly do mental arithmetic, weighing variables like catchiness and artistic merit to determine if their need to listen > the knowledge that Chris Brown has done some heinous things and your listens are enabling him, albeit in a very small way.
Brown hasn't done himself many favors in the years since he put his hands on then-girlfriend Rihanna. The one-time purveyor of light-hearted danceable R&B steered hard into the skid, putting out music that portrayed him as a dancefloor-stalking predator, a sleaze who had abandoned his lovey-dovey attitude toward women in favor of treating them like furniture. If that wasn't bad enough, Brown's music carried a hint of implied violence. Metaphors about beating the pussy up land awkwardly when they're launched from the mouth of someone who actually beat a woman up.
Brown's newest album Royalty offered a glimmer of hope. From the title (which shares the name of his one-year-old daughter) to the artwork (Brown holding Royalty to his chest), all signs pointed towards the reemergence of Breezy's softer side, the part of him that produced the mellow, infectious R&B of 2007's Exclusive.
Unfortunately, it was all a ruse. Although the production on Royalty harkens back to Brown's earlier work by peeling away layers of Autotune and noisy Eurotrash club beats, the subject matter remained the same. The resulting album shines a spotlight on just how empty the average Brown song is, his crass statements landing with an embarrassing thud while the club falls into a 20-minute lull. This album is basically that sitcom trope where the song cuts out right as Brown shouts "Hey, wanna bang?" into some unnamed woman's ear.
That's not to say the album is all bad. Occasionally, Brown does trip and fall into a great song. Album opener "Back To Sleep" manages to toe the line of acceptability the way the best R&B songs do, making a song about fucking someone you accidentally woke up until they get tired enough to fall back asleep (in pretty much those exact words) sound more than a little bit romantic.
There's also "Make Love", which is possibly the best track we've heard from Chris this decade. The track revives that warm bass sound that worked so well on "Fine China" but strips away the auto-tune (and the reminder that he could be considered a threat to any potential woman's safety) in the chorus. This is a song that alternate timeline Chris Brown would have made if he just decided to remake "Poppin'" over and over again into adulthood.
But for every standout track, there's two or three songs like "Zero" and "Liquor." Both songs fall back on the reliable mid-'00s trope of highlighting the word "fuck" in a chorus. Remember "Tonight" by Enrique Iglesias? So does Breezy, but apparently he doesn't share the sentiment of 99% of people who never want to hear that song again. "Liquor" manages to make a refrain of "All I wanna do is drink and fuck" boring.
By far the worst part of Chris Brown paring back all his clubby flourishes was the way that it highlighted just how little Brown has to offer. The album features several tracks that are almost entirely Frankenstein's monsters built out of other, more popular songs. "Picture Me Rollin'" takes its name from a Tupac song, its vibe from G-Funk and DJ Mustard songs, its drugs-of-choice from Atlanta and a significant chunk of its melody from Warren G's "Regulate." All of these are odd choices for a singer that once proudly boasted of being a “country boy from Tappahannock.”
“Rollin’” would have been bad enough on its own, but it is immediately followed by "Who's Gonna (Nobody)", a song that lifts its chorus wholesale from a Keith Sweat classic. On the track he actually says "It's going to be the greatest sex you ever had in your life", further illustrating the gulf between himself and Sweat. When Keith was singing to the ladies, he didn't have to tell you that in such explicit terms, you just knew.
Royalty has the lushness of the best R&B records, and some of the sensibility. Unfortunately, he's still spouting lines and repping an ideology that's a better fit for emotionally barren clubs on the Vegas strip than an intimate venue or bedroom. Brown doesn't seem comfortable turning face, after playing the heel for so long, but here's hoping that he does. Being the old guy singing about the club is just as embarrassing as being the old guy at the club, if not more so. Overall, the album sees Brown heading in the right direction, taking several step away from the neon wastelands of his last few albums. The only problem is he didn't walk far enough.
Royalty might not be a good album, but it is the first Brown release in a long time that has me excited to see what he will do next.