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Chris Brown plays it both ways on long-delayed 'X'

Chris Brown plays it both ways on long-delayed 'X'
Chris Brown's new album is titled "X." (RCA Records)

Five years after Chris Brown's 2009 assault on his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, the R&B star continues to exercise some remarkably dubious judgment in his music.

"I'll calculate a home invasion," he sings in "Add Me In," a track from his new album; later, in a duet with Trey Songz, Brown promises to show a woman "what it means to be a victim of love." That the duet is called "Songs on 12 Play," a nod to R. Kelly's album, hardly helps.

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Listening to these tunes (and many others on "X"), you start to wonder if Brown, who was released from jail in June after serving part of a one-year sentence for violating his probation, might somehow have escaped a real awareness of his public persona -- if it honestly never occurred to him that a victim of love sounds like a horrifying thing to be in a Chris Brown song.

But then how to account for the ominous title track, in which he broods over his bad reputation before growling, "I swear to God I'm moving on"?

What makes the clumsy way Brown handles language even more befuddling -- assuming, of course, that the references to violence aren't intentionally sinister -- is how exacting he remains as a singer and record maker.

Though it sags toward the end, the long-delayed "X" contains some of his sharpest work, including the propulsive "Time for Love" and "Add Me In," a chewy soul-funk tune in which he accents his vocals with percussive gasps a la Michael Jackson.

Kendrick Lamar contributes a characteristically thoughtful verse to "Autumn Leaves," which rides a woozy groove by Roccstar, who also produced Brown's great 2013 hit "Fine China," which is featured as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of "X."

And then there's "Loyal," the latest in a series of recent Brown singles (following "Look at Me Now" and "Deuces") in which he pairs his coarsest, most mean-spirited thoughts -- in this case about women he views as gold-diggers -- with his sleekest, most irresistible beats.

It's nasty enough to make you think Brown has happily taken up the role of R&B's archvillain -- at least until the album's next song, the tender electro-soul cut "New Flame," complete with a cameo by R&B's good guy, Usher.

"I just wanna be the one to do you right," Brown pleads, and he almost sounds like he knows what that means.

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Chris Brown

"X"

(RCA Records)

2 ½ stars out of 4

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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