Being Chris Brown’s publicist has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world. The 23-year-old hothead is on probation after pleading guilty to beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna back in 2009. His comeback was marred by allegations that he may have used tear-inducing drops to make an emotional appearance on the BET Awards. After winning a Grammy for Best R&B Album, he tweeted “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate F**** OFF!”, a charming sentiment that was later deleted. He supposedly stole a fan’s iPhone. He stormed out of an interview with Good Morning America. His appearances on awards shows are greeted by both eager fans, horrified critics and one of the most revolting Twitter trends of all time. Now he’s in the news for a club-busting brawl with fellow musician Drake and releasing a curse-laden diss track that calls Drake to task. Despite all that, Breezy, as he’s known, is back with a new album. Fortune hits stores today.
Here’s a recap for those who have forgotten the events of three years ago: The night before the Grammys in 2009, Chris Brown beat his girlfriend Rihanna so badly she required medical treatment. Neither Brown nor Rihanna performed at the Grammys, an act that according to Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich rendered the Grammys the victims. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know,” Ehrlich said to ABC after inviting Brown to perform in 2012. “If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” That’s right, the Grammys were the victims when instead of performing on the awards show, Brown turned himself into the LAPD, where he was booked on suspicion of making criminal threats and was released on $50,000 bail. In August 2009, Brown was sentenced to five years probation, mandatory domestic violence counseling and 180 hours of community service after pleading guilty to felony assault. He was also ordered to stay away from Rihanna, including at entertainment events at which they were both appearing. That has since been modified so the two can now perform at the same shows.
Pleading guilty to felony assault against one of the biggest pop stars of all time has not been especially deleterious to Chris Brown’s career. In December 2009, a few months after he pled guilty to assault, he released his third studio album, Graffiti. It debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts and sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week. He wasn’t able to tour in the U.K. in support of the album after his application for a visa to enter was refused on the grounds that he was “guilty of a serious criminal offence.” But the BET Awards invited him to perform as part of a Michael Jackson Tribute at their 2010 show. Brown’s last album, 2011’s F.A.M.E., debuted at the top of the U.S. chart. In December 2011, Billboard named him their artist of the year and in February of 2012, the Grammys invited him to perform for the first time since his conviction. He picked up the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album while he was there. In advance of Fortune’s release, Brown performed on Sundays BET Awards, too, singing two tracks off his forthcoming album and picking up the trophy for Best Male R&B Artist — beating out Usher and Trey Songz. The music industry has clearly forgiven Brown for his crimes. In a move that has disappointed her mentor Jay Z, it seems that Rihanna has forgiven Brown, too, going so far as to collaborate with him on the “Birthday Cake” remix. The only seemingly permanent outcome of Brown’s crime is that his visit to Sesame Street has been erased from the show’s memory. It still lives on YouTube, though.
While his career doesn’t appear to have taken a hit, Chris Brown now makes music with an asterisk next to his name, much like a baseball player who has used steroids. Most reviews of his albums mention the crime. His performances are greeted with an onslaught of tweets reminding the world that the guy dancing on stage with David Guetta is the same man who beat Rihanna so badly that she couldn’t perform at the 2009 Grammys. (The fact that the Grammys allowed him to perform shows not only a lack of respect for women and domestic violence victims, but also a desperation on the organizing entity’s part to create ratings via stunt casting of the most heinous variety.) With his track record, some fans may hesitate to plunk down cash for Brown’s latest album, Fortune. However, a truly great album could push wavering fans to pay, despite their trepidations about supporting Brown himself. Fortune, however, is not a great album. It has a few stand-out tracks that show Brown’s potential as an artist, but for the most part, the album is boring. It manages to combine elements of electronic dance music, dubstep and R&B with talented producers, skilled guest stars and a huge budget to create one of the blandest R&B albums in recent memory.
“Turn Up the Music,” one of the album’s singles, is a techno-inflected track saturated with shout-outs to the electronica trend with lyrics like, “You’re sexy and you know it,” which is clearly an effort to reference the hit LMFAO song “I’m Sexy and I Know It.” The track hit number one, probably based only on its ability to make you tap your toes. Frankly though the song could have been performed by anyone. It is a soulless confection that could have effortlessly existed on the new Justin Bieber album or on any album by an auto-tune aficionado (a Real Housewife perhaps?) It’s a song that is nothing but a club-ready beat and an impressive repetition of the phrase “turn up.” Despite the fact that Brown is given co-author credit for the song, it seems clearly written by a professional songwriter who shopped it around to a variety of musicians before it landed on Fortune. The extent of the praise you can offer the track is that it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, which for some people is enough. If the album was full of tracks like “Turn Up the Music,” you could justify buying the album for your gym mix or party playlist, but it’s not. The only other potential hit on Fortune is an equally accessible track called “Don’t Wake Me Up,” a track filled with thumping block-rocking beats, that seems crafted to be sold to club DJs, not to show off any talent by the artist. Throughout the album, Brown is frequently upstaged by the musicians appearing as guests, including turns by Wiz Khalifa and Nas. Their performances so outshine Brown that it only goes to highlight the flavorlessness of the album. The majority of the songs are forgettable R&B that could be performed by any American Idol contestant with a production budget.
But being boring is not the worst thing about the album. Writing an album of love songs when you’re on probation for beating your famous girlfriend is nothing short of hubris, and like most Greek heroes it’s also Brown’s fatal flaw. The cycle of domestic violence is marked by something that the domestic abuse community calls “the honeymoon phase.” It’s a period after a violent outburst that is marked by apologies and promises that it will never happen again, or that the abuser will do his or her best to change. This album feels like Chris Brown’s musical equivalent of a honeymoon phase, except for the fact that it’s completely remorseless. The album is filled with references to Brown’s seemingly favorite activities: Girls, clubbing and swagging. The track “Don’t Judge Me”, which is a lot to ask of an audience, reveals something about Brown’s mindset. While the song seems billed as an honest apology, it’s not. It’s about a player who got busted playing and is unhappy that he’s getting yelled at about it. It even includes lines like, “It could get ugly before it gets beautiful,” which, frankly is a line that should have been struck by his PR agent. On “Strip” Brown bellows “Panties! Bra! Take it off!,” but everything he sings now carries an implied threat of or else. Brown seems so determined to ignore his past crimes that his album comes across as brash at best and, at worst, insulting. The end result is retch-inducing lyrics set to a party beat.
As Sasha Pasulka states in her stellar article “I’m Not Okay with Chris Brown Performing at the Grammys and I’m Not Sure Why You Are,” Rihanna doesn’t have to be the poster child of domestic violence if she doesn’t want to. She was the victim of a crime she never asked for and if she wants to put it behind her, that’s her choice. As fans though, we have a responsibility to put our money where our morals are. In a world where more than half of teenage girls aged 12-18 have experienced sexual violence at the hands of a partner — and considered it normal, where nearly 80% of girls who have been physically abused in their intimate relationships continue to date their abuser, and 40% of teenage girls would consider giving a boyfriend a second chance if he hit them, we have to take stand. If we don’t like what an artist does or says or represents, don’t give him or his label your money. Money talks and if we would all stop buying albums by seemingly remorseless, abusive, violent individuals, record labels would eventually listen. Then the Grammys and BET Awards wouldn’t throw Brown in our faces and parade him across our TV screens for their own ratings. Spend your money on something else, something better, something by someone who hasn’t punched Rihanna in the face, which, as far as we know, is anyone else.
(If you find yourself hopelessly drawn to music by artists with unsavory personal lives, for example, say R. Kelly, may we direct you towards the It’s Complicated Project” on Kickstarter?)
Chris Brown “Don’t Wake Me Up”