[17 April 2011]
Graffiti may have housed the party hit “Transform Ya”, but otherwise it was a massive trainwreck. Chris Brown was never going to be mistaken for a crooner, but the mismatch of sorrowful lyrics framing Brown as a victim with cold, soulless production just made for bad listening. Between his continued anger problems and his inability to pick decent material to sing, Brown’s career seemed on an ever-downward current. But then a pair of funny things happened: first, Brown embraced his bad boy image. By covering his body in tattoos Lil’ Wayne style and releasing a collaborative mixtape with Young Money’s Tyga, Fan of a Fan, Brown reinvented himself as half-singer, half-rapper. In the process, he convinced a surprising amount of women that his sexiness trumped his attitude (as is the bad boy’s wont) and with the surprise success of that mixtape’s “Deuces” (which leads off F.A.M.E.), Brown began his public rehabilitation.
All of this surprise goodwill manifested itself in a tribute to Michael Jackson during which Brown appeared to tear up during his performance, and more than anyone save Usher (who has consistently served as Brown’s career template) he appeared affected by Jackson’s loss. With a hit single, the audience’s sympathy, and graduation from his anger management classes, Chris Brown seemed to have done the unthinkable and rescued his career.
F.A.M.E. appears unaware of any of this, however, and takes advantage of nothing. Back are the impersonal beats that dominated Graffiti, back are Brown’s apathetic vocals, and in place of all the whimpering over being ostracized are stupefyingly basic lyrics about sex, sex, and sex. R&B has always been about sex, granted, but in comparison to something like Trey Songz’ “Love Faces” or “Alone”, songs like “Up 2 You” and “Next 2 You” are childish and trite, while “Wet the Bed” is simply explicit for the sake of being so, not to mention a juvenile and clumsy allusion to female ejaculation. It’s also hard to take his songs about love seriously regardless of their lyrical content, because Brown’s vocals are often processed to the point that he sounds like any generic kid who enters a talent search with any talent other than singing, and then is asked to sing some songs before he takes his show on the road.
Much of F.A.M.E. feels like an album tailor-made for stadium tours and sold out shows, songs more focused on mood and energy than message. Stuff like “Yeah 3x” and “Oh My Love” just feel like obvious stage moments, points at which Brown’s adoring pubescent public can lose their shit to his amazing dance moves while remaining blissfully ignorant to his lip synching. But then there are the songs like “No Bullshit” he’ll no doubt be expected to slow his sets with. The “no bullshit” is his ability to make love for an entire night, of course. He’d also prefer that you “don’t be on that bullshit” as far as disbelieving him is concerned.
Besides “Deuces”, the album’s lone other triumph (though this in itself is a surprise after Graffiti‘s “Transform Ya” + 12 other faceless songs format) is it’s official lead single “Look at Me Now”. The song is a red herring for the album, as it features some of Brown’s rapping and I do admire him for his effort. After all, the song’s main point is just to listen to Busta Rhymes and Lil’ Wayne kick blisteringly fast triple-time raps over a super fresh Diplo production, and Brown gamely tries to do the same rather than sing. Unfortunately, it’s also the home of one of the worst rap lyrics since Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: “Oops, I said on my dick, I ain’t really mean to say on my dick / But since we talkin’ about my dick, all of you niggas say hi to it.” Busta Rhymes may or may not acknowledge the humor in following that monstrosity with his disgustingly Twista impression, but his “Ay yo, Breezy, let me show you how to keep the dice rolling when you’re doing that thing over there, homie” never ceases to make me giggle like a school girl.
Besides “Look at Me Now” and “Deuces”, though, F.A.M.E. is just as much a graveyard of bland, Radio Disney-oriented pop and dance songs as Graffiti was. Its only saving grace is that Brown isn’t wasting our time trying to garner sympathy for beating Rihanna to a pulp here; the bad boy stuff might not ring enjoyable, but at least it’s not appalling. Well, besides “She Ain’t You”, a “Human Nature”-sampling mess about Brown’s desires to have a “bad romance” with one girl while having simple sex with another. I fail to see the difference between the two, and the song’s use of “Human Nature”‘s melodies as a crutch and, I assume, ARK Music Factory as inspiration helps nothing. F.A.M.E. will satisfy 12 year Malibu and Miami beach frequenters, but anyone with a soul should steer far clear of this mess.