Review: On new albums, Chris Brown and R. Kelly have no use for filters

Chris Brown performs this month in Chicago. His new album, “Royalty,” came out Friday and vaulted to the top of the iTunes chart.

Chris Brown performs this month in Chicago. His new album, “Royalty,” came out Friday and vaulted to the top of the iTunes chart.

(Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images)

Hours after a judge in Philadelphia suggested this week that she might send rapper Meek Mill to jail for violating his probation, Chris Brown fired up Twitter to defend his friend and get some things off his chest.

“Wish the judge could see the influence meek mill can have out of jail more than in it,” Brown wrote. “Y’all wanna lock him up but what about FREDDIE GRAY?”

Then the R&B singer — no stranger to the criminal justice system since a 2009 attack on his then-girlfriend Rihanna that led to an assault conviction and five years’ probation — unloaded a stream of increasingly exasperated thoughts about hypocrisy and government corruption, concluding, “Y’all wanna take guns away so y’all can enforce martial law.”


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“I ain’t on probation,” he added, “so I can tell y’all kiss my” — well, you can figure it out.

Brown’s freshly unencumbered legal status may well have made him feel free to speak his mind. But the 26-year-old has scarcely seemed tamped down in the past — see his 2011 hit “Look at Me Now,” a sneering kiss-off to his critics, or the brawl he reportedly got into with Drake at a New York nightclub in 2012.

As Brown points out on his new album, “Royalty,” which came out Friday and immediately vaulted over Adele’s smash “25” to top the iTunes chart, “I swear I got no filter.”

Brown isn’t the only R&B star with new work showcasing an old impulsive streak. Last week R. Kelly released “The Buffet,” the veteran singer’s second consecutive album (after 2013’s “Black Panties”) of hardcore raunch. That’s the mode that made him the genre’s biggest act for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, in songs like “Bump n’ Grind” and “You Remind Me of Something.”

Starting in 2010, though, following his acquittal on child-pornography charges, Kelly largely set aside the bedroom talk for two comparatively chaste records rooted in soul music of the 1960s and ’70s. Now he’s unapologetically returned to the kind of material that today can’t help but call to mind his past.


“You need someone who understands you have a delicate palate,” he says in the spoken word piece that opens his album, “Let me cater to you while indulging in my own bad eating habits.”

Brown does a bit of heavy breathing himself on “Royalty,” most memorably in “Make Love,” a humid, rather pretty slow jam with unexpected echoes of Prince and D’Angelo. There’s also “Back to Sleep,” a coarser number in which Brown puts his needs ahead of an exhausted lover’s.

But much of “Royalty,” which shares a name with the singer’s 1-year-old daughter, finds Brown in a pose that’s more familiar: responding to those who’ve underestimated him or done him wrong. In the bullying “Wrist,” it’s anyone who thinks he can’t afford anything he wants; in “Zero,” it’s an ex whom he gleefully informs how many nights he’s spent thinking about her since they split up.

In a distinct break with modern pop-star practice, these songs don’t make you want to hang out with Brown. They’re not meant to persuade you that he’s a good person, or even a misunderstood one, which can be hard to reconcile with the half-hearted charm offensive he’s been conducting elsewhere (as on the album’s cover, which depicts him in a protective embrace with Royalty).

Yet the music carries a convincing bad-guy energy that’s all the more potent for its sweet, often luscious textures. Its recklessness travels in a clear direction.

On “The Buffet,” Kelly is equally unfiltered in his presentation of elaborate sexual metaphors that few of his inheritors, even those without his reputation, would dare step to. “Marching Band,” for instance, takes its lyrical conceit much further than you expect, while the food-fixated “Poetic Sex” risks grossing out listeners with even the strongest stomachs.


Unlike Brown, though, Kelly exercised what feels like very little quality control here; he’s simply following every impulse, whether or not it leads anywhere. What’s worse, the tenderness that used to suffuse his music, even at its bawdiest, is in short supply, replaced for the most part with buzzing synthesizers and hard-edged machine beats.

Who would’ve predicted four years ago that Chris Brown’s new record would be more seductive than R. Kelly’s?

A few tracks stand out, including “All My Fault” and “Wake Up Everybody,” both in the effervescent style of Kelly’s masterful 2003 album, “Chocolate Factory,” and “Barely Breathin’,” a startlingly credible modern-country tune that closes the set’s deluxe edition (and could easily find a place on Faith Hill’s next album).

But they’re not enough to save “The Buffet,” which is as overstuffed as it is undercooked.

Twitter: @mikaelwood