Because art is made by humans and humans have a tendency to be flawed at best and criminally violent at worst, we as an audience are often faced with a moral dilemma: can you separate the artist from the art? (This is, of course, a luxury of those who are not the victims of the artist’s violence.) This is often a frustrating and challenging endeavor. Art that feels transformative becomes part of our identity; removing it from our lives is like psychic surgery.
Fortunately for us all, Chris Brown is here to make things simple. The convicted felon who somehow continues to sing and dance for a living just released a new album. The album is called “X” (not to be confused with Ed Sheeran’s “x”). The album is not good. There is absolutely no reason for you to ever listen to it. I listened to it for you. This is the pop reporter equivalent of going into a war zone.
Brown is talented, and in the days before his horrifying behavior and legal troubles overshadowed his work, there was hope that he’d make his way into the high echelons of pop and R&B.; But talent isn’t exactly the problem on “X.” Brown can hit the notes. But that skill is barely on display here as his pipes get bent through the AutoTune tubes, and besides, straight-up singing talent is less important than a musician’s ability to make a song sound like something no one else has any right to sing. The best singers inhabit their music in an intimate, meaningful way. Even music that aims at something lighter is still supposed to inspire you, if only to a basic action: it should make you want to dance at the party, to sing along in your car, to bop your head at your desk. But Brown fails to inspire anything, except a desire to not have to listen to any of these songs again.
Brown’s voice sounds almost distracted, lazy, like someone shook him out of a nap and shoved a mic in his face. (Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz accurately describes the whole album as “a joyless slog.”) “X” looks especially weak when compared to the competition. There isn’t one lyric on here that’s as sharp, clever or strange as what Nicki Minaj offers on “Anaconda.” Brown’s voice — possibly influenced by his personality — is strained and robotic. He doesn’t sound as alluring (or, dare I say, breezy) as Pharrell. Brown sounds bitter where Drake sounds sweet; these dull, barely-beating songs kill the engine where even Jason Derulo succeeds at revving it up. Brown said this record would be inspired by Prince, Sam Cooke and Michael Jackson, but you’ll have a rough time finding anything on “X” that calls to mind that trio of giants. None of Brown’s new songs are even as good as the work Michael Jackson’s estate can’t stop releasing from beyond the grave.
It’s hard to tell what vision or organizing principle is guiding Brown here. Is this supposed to be a get-drunk-and-party soundtrack? Something seductive to set the mood? The tracks that seem to be going for sexy, like “Songs on 12 Play,” featuring Trey Songz, have lyrics that sound about as unenthusiastic about sex as you could possibly be; one verse actually includes the phrase “et cetera et cetera et cetera,” as if the song is getting bored of itself only two minutes into a nearly four-minute playtime. The beat is too slow to come close to being seductive. It sounds less like a song you’d use to get somebody in bed with you and more like a literal lullaby. Just like some movies scream “straight to DVD,” “X” already has the tired, forgettable sound of something you’re six months out from hearing on the Lite fm station playing in the background at a Nordstrom Rack.
As annoying as it can be when a pop star’s musical periods feel too self-consciously constructed, at least the stars who can pull that off provide a framework for listening to the music they produce. You get what they’re going for, and you can tell if they achieve it. “X” is erratic and unfocused, confusing and boring, and totally unnecessary.
So throw it all away, readers, and bask in the glow of how wonderful it can be when your artistic and moral tastes can align! No internal tug-of-war over whether to put “Ignition” on the pregame playlist, no quashing the queasiness you feel at dancing to James Brown, no angst over how many times it’s okay for you to watch Annie Hall, no pacing back and forth in front of American Apparel while you decide if there’s a crop top in town better than the one with Dov Charney’s stamp on it. There’s zero ethical dilemma here. Chris Brown has released an album that’s as terrible as he is.