Chris Brown - X

by Matthew Graham

Deriving its name from a combination of tenuous references to Chris Brown’s birthday and age (as well as being a pun for ex-girlfriend), the sixth studio album from this troublesome singer is supposed to be a metaphor for moving on. In many ways, X delivers on this promise.

Brown’s sound has indeed matured, and musically he is more refined than ever. However, X offers little in the way of looking deeper into Brown’s personal experiences, or indeed any other part of his actual character. I feel that Brown as an artist and celebrity presents an interesting duality, and X somewhat typifies this. His lyrics are overtly sexual and boringly repetitive, while his personal life and past relationships are far from favourable in the public eye. Yet the singer’s talent is undeniable; his vocals are silky and irrepressible, and his good songs are incredibly hard not to like. What X achieves is a combination of all these aspects.

The album opens with impressive potential and indeed, the first three tracks are among the best on the record. Title track, X, is a surprisingly sophisticated affair. It is sonically adventurous for a Chris Brown song, especially when compared to his recent EDM chart hits from former albums, F.A.M.E and Fortune. X flows from murky smoothness to euphoric drum and bass-styled build-ups, and into dub-style drops with incredible dexterity. To further prove his decision to take the album in new directions musically, Add Me In immediately departs from the mature sound of X with an unquestionable funk groove that contains flecks of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. As the best known single from the album, Loyal demonstrates Brown’s talent to make a decent job with even X’s commercially aimed tracks. Loyal more than holds its own among other current R&B songs; it’s so slickly produced that it is instantly likeable and infectiously catchy.

The rest of the album however, feels like a bit of a let-down after those few tracks. The playfulness of style is lost and X descends into a collection of same-y R&B-inspired songs. While the tight production is unquestionable there is ultimately little in the way of originality. Came To Do, featuring Akon, is literally a copy of Loyal, but with a slightly higher-pitched synth. It would seem that even bringing in a multitude of big name urban artists such as Trey Songz and Kendrick Lamar can’t save X.

What really brings the album down is the thorough lack of imagination lyrically. I found myself asking, why is it so hard for so many R&B artists to write a song that isn’t a thinly veiled sexual metaphor? The first half of X is essentially an explicit concoction of bragging about Brown’s prowess in bed. Interludes 101 and Drown In It are completely off-putting in their overused vulgarity. I suppose that these songs appeal to the teenage market who might feel rebellious by enjoying their crassness. Therefore, despite being more sophisticated musically, X doesn’t display a maturity in themes or message and there is no real personal touch to this collection of songs.

X further loses creative steam in the latter portion of the album. Autumn Leaves attempts to add a more soulful tone to the record, but ends up being rather lacklustre and on Do Better, guest feature, Brandy, outshines Brown vocally on delivering emotion. The faux-anthemic sound of See You Around is probably the most “emotional” section of X. Furthermore, the album eventually reverts to the EDM, club-ready sound Brown is perhaps best known for nowadays, though it is arguably a more laidback approach than the likes of previous singles, Wake Me Up or Turn Up The Music; while these tracks are perfectly listenable, they are ultimately generic. Body Shots is like an echo of Martin Garrix’s Animals, while Drunk Texting favours an early 2000s RnB flavour. What is most disappointing is the hidden gem in the form of Fine China, right at the end of the deluxe edition – Brown should have definitely made this song more prominent on the album.

Overall, X is impeccably well produced. It is an easily consumable album and I cannot deny that for general part, Brown’s vocals are on point, being some of his strongest to date. Sure, on the fillers Brown reverts back to heavy use of auto-tune such as on Stereotype. Yet on tracks where he really begins to push himself, Brown’s voice is effortlessly acrobatic and smoothly floats over them like silk. He has definitely achieved some large leaps forward with his artistry on X, but I think it’s more of a halfway house to a true breakthrough that we will hopefully see with his next album. As far as really innovative urban music goes, the likes of Frank Ocean still has him beat as Brown clings to his old formula.