Album review: Chris Brown’s ‘F.A.M.E.’
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When Chris Brown opens his new album with “Deuces,” a sleek kiss-off that sweeps aside an ex as “nothing but a vulture,” he’s not hiding any bitterness. A few minutes deep into the track with Tyga and Kevin McCall, the most troublesome line of the album unfurls: “Like Tina did Ike in the limo, it finally hit me. I got a new chick and it ain’t you.” The poison dart isn’t delivered by Brown but the underlying message is clear and it’s one that’s been long-trotted out by Breezy’s defenders: Rihanna brought it on herself.
Before the domestic abuse incident in February 2009, Brown was a promising pop star prepped to inherit some of Michael Jackson’s early solo-career shine but with a modern, sexy edge like Ne-Yo. After the highly publicized pictures of Rihanna’s bruised face, Brown became, to many more people, that violent pop star who beat up his girlfriend. Brown attempted a few apologies, awkwardly appearing on “Larry King Live” and claiming to not remember the fight. Meanwhile, his career was presumed dead by many in the industry.
But on the release date of his fourth album, “F.A.M.E.,” Brown is enjoying a slew of hit radio singles. How did he do it? By nearly abandoning Jackson circa “Off the Wall” and instead attempting the outré unapologetic genius of R. Kelly. “F.A.M.E.,” an acronym, rather astoundingly standing for “Forgiving All My Enemies,” isn’t without a mild flick of contrition here and there, but for the most part, Brown is full-steam ahead as a Lothario whose appetites know no bounds.
As a lover and an artist, Brown will wear any mask to get what he wants — sex, street cred or radio redemption. As much as he cycles from a sexually confident tough guy on “Look at Me Now” to simpering romantic on “Should’ve Kissed You,” he also churns through several modes on “F.A.M.E.” Overall, the album leaves not an impression of one singular style but of the great effort required to mix and match so many times. “Beautiful People,” with its powdered-sugar synths and dance floor positivity, is almost a Kylie Minogue song. With a few shifts in production values, “All Back” could have easily found itself in the coffers of Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood.
All of it is done capably, even superbly in some cases, though “F.A.M.E.” also feels strained and sometimes downright desperate. That said, there’s no denying he pulls off some neat coups. “She Ain’t You” is carried aloft on a gussied up sample from Jackson’s “Human Nature” and the sentiment of the song is refreshingly complex. “Look at Me Now” is ubiquitous for a reason, built around a hypnotic toss between bass thumps, alien effects and rapid flow from Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne.
The truth is that Brown, like his ex-girlfriend Rihanna, who has used S&M and sexually violent imagery for her own visceral and at times confusing artistic expressions, is a provocateur. And as a provocateur who particularly likes playing with the masks of masculinity — from the angry to the apologetic to the always-conquering — he seems to be seeing his violent encounter with Rihanna as a kind of strange gift, something he’ll no doubt manipulate for years to come, even as the memories of Rihanna’s bruises fade.
Two and a half stars