I was once a big fan of Chris Brown. I always thought the R&B singer had a fantastic voice that contrasted many other male artists out there. It wasn’t surprising to see Brown exploded onto the scene with a successful first and second album in 2005’s Chris Brown (hits including “Run It”, “Yo Excuse Me Miss“, “Gimme That”, “Say Goodbye” etc.) or 2007’s Exclusive (“Wall To Wall”, “Kiss Kiss”, “Take You Down”, “With You”, and later “Forever”). On his first album, he was the ‘clean-cut’ All-A sporting country boy from little heard of Tappahannock, Virginia. That said, he was also all of 16 years old. On Exclusive, Brown was ‘older’, being 18-years old and his music reflected this, as expected. He didn’t, however, take sexual maturity and adult themes to the excess, still cradling his tween audience. Looking at these two albums in Breezy’s career, he benefitted from a positive image and ultimately seemed to be on top of the world.
Then that incident with one high profile pop-star girlfriend Rihanna happened and it truly changed Brown (and Rihanna’s) image from more innocent star to bad boy. Chris Brown became ‘Hester Prynn’, only his ignominy was for beating one of urban music’s rising/biggest stars. Brown didn’t rebound well from the incident, and 2009’s Graffiti is not only considered his worst critical album, it is also his worst commercially. The fallout is explainable not only from the lack of substance, but more so because Brown assumed invincibility artistically and musically, expecting folks to jump on board like they had when he was an innocent child-star. They didn’t and Graffiti somehow garner an undeserved Grammy nomination; it would have been a travesty had it won.
Talented artists often can get back on their feet, but not without hard work. Brown would return in a ‘big way’ on 2011’s F.A.M.E. (“Deuces”, “No BS”, “Look At Me Now”, “She Ain’t You” and “Yeah 3x“), executed by sporting a new sound and embracing a more adult side. It was a risk of sorts, but it paid off by giving Brown a successful no. 1 album and winning him a Grammy. Even so, there was still a block of people who questioned Brown’s attitude, even as he seemed headed back on to his perch. 2012’s Fortune (“Turn Up The Music”, “Strip”, “Don’t Wake Me Up”, “Till I Die”, Don’t Judge Me”) proved to many that Brown indeed HAD NOT learned much from adversity. Having reviewed the majority of Brown’s discography, I found myself appalled by Brown’s unapologetic arrogance on what was his worst, lowest album since Graffiti (A Back Step For Brown – Just Doesn’t Quite Work…). Graffiti had less material to cling onto, but Fortune’s hedonism and hyper-sexual nature only complemented and stroked the perception of Chris Brown’s unapologetic stance on generally being considered an a–hole.
Now, Brown has been ‘saying’ he is a changed man. Hopefully, this is genuine and he has learned from his numerous publicity mishaps. Face it,
Brown’s abuse was just one big faux pas; his overall behavior has been atrocious. He has had arguments on Twitter as well as numerous tiffs with several colleagues, including Drake and Frank Ocean. The changed Brown has also stated his concerns for Justin Bieber, whose recent behaviors seemed heading in the same adverse direction. Being changed or at least publicly making the perception that you have changed is often reflected in the offending artist’s music. R. Kelly has been notable for this given controversy, oscillating between his edgy, risqué offerings (2005’s TP.3 Reloaded, 2007’s Double Up and 2009’s Untitled) and more conservative efforts (2004’s Happy People/U Saved Me, 2010’s Love Letter, 2012’s Write Me Back). For Brown, it seems as new single “Fine China” may have a dual purpose.
“Fine China” is a contrast to MOST of Brown’s recent work, borrowing directly from the Michael Jackson school. The specific details (yelps, falsetto, etc.) all hearken back to 80s pop and its most popular pop star. On “Fine China”, listeners are spared of the sexual nature that helped to derail Fortune and even annoyed somewhat on F.A.M.E.; we are spared of hearing any condom references, be it from Brown or Big Sean (“Till I Die”). To Brown’s credit, single “She Ain’t You” from F.A.M.E. samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and a subtle foreshadow to “Fine China”, but still, Fortune almost eliminated any notion that Brown might deliver an album in that direction or inspired by MJ. The question most skeptics want to know is, how much is “Fine China” built for PR control? Is Brown sincerely changed and wants his music to reflect this, or is this an enjoyable musical direction shift that also hopes to kill off detractors?
Here’s my thoughts. I think Brown can be effective by taming his inner beast; he doesn’t have to be hyper-sexual. Furthermore, he doesn’t need to lather his voice in autotune, but I’ll save that argument for another time. Teen stars often struggle to balance appealing to a youthful audience and trying to appeal to a more adult audience. Brown’s Exclusive balanced that well enough, never feeling like a child’s only album. Sure, Brown is not going to backtrack back to his Exclusive days, but he could take a step back from Fortune, polish up his musical image, and not miss a beat. R. Kelly has always been more of a ‘bad boy’, so often when he goes more ‘refined’, his results (and sometimes sales) aren’t always as great. Chris Brown doesn’t have to drop sixty f-bombs to sell an album; he could go without one and still have the swagger and voice to debut with a top five album. I do think “Fine China” serves a dual purpose, but I do sincerely hope that Brown is changing.