Chris Brown Grapples With His Past on ‘F.A.M.E.’

Chris Brown -- 'F.A.M.E.' -- Jive -- 3 STARS

Courtesy Jive

Chris Brown’s new album, “F.A.M.E.,” makes it clear that he continues to grapple with his past even as he figures out how to move forward. He is still fighting negative press from previous abuse allegations—an occasional theme in his music—and as an artist he is continuing his transition from child phenomenon to fully-fledged adult R&B star. As a result, “F.A.M.E.” bounces between youthful innocence, explicit sexuality, and time-tested weariness. Though it offers many potential hit singles, the album lacks a cohesive sound and style.

The world has already heard over a third of the tracks on Brown’s new album. “Deuces” and “No Bullshit” were released on Brown’s collaborative mixtape with Tyga, “Fan of a Fan,” which came out in May 2010. “Yeah 3x,” “Look at Me Now,” and “Beautiful People” were released as singles over the past year and have been climbing the Billboard charts ever since.

These tracks—some of the best of the album—represent what Brown does best. The international success of “Yeah 3x” is a testament to Brown’s ability to create a chart-topping, party-ready dance hit. The up-tempo beat, bright synthesizers, anthemic chorus, and tween-friendly lyrics work to create a song reminiscent of his 2008 hit “Forever.” “Beautiful People,” a Euro-inspired track featuring copious amounts of Auto-tune and the Italian DJ Benny Benassi, has a clubby house feel.

The album’s standout “Look at Me Now,” a collaboration with Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne, seems to represent the direction in which Brown wants to head as he matures as an artist. Like “Yeah 3x” and “Beautiful People,” it’s a crowd-pleasing, dance-floor filler, but instead of bouncy synthesizers, it has a spare, syncopated, hip-winding beat, more similar to his 2009 hit “I Can Transform Ya.” Unlike those two more youthful songs, it has sharper lyrics that send Brown’s message of resolute defiance to his naysayers.

“Look at me now / Look at me now / I’m getting paper” is a lyric typical of R&B and rap’s chest-puffing, but in Brown’s sing-song rap and stinging delivery, it becomes an honest statement of growth. “Deuces,” probably a nod to his relationship with R&B star Rihanna, has even more pointed lyrics: “I know you mad but so what? / I wish you the best of luck / And now I’m finna throw them deuces up / I’m on some new shit.” These songs are reflective of a more world-weary Brown looking to move forward and are successful in their own right, although they sound both musically and lyrically as if they come from a different album than “Yeah 3x” and “Beautiful People.”

Unfortunately, the third of the album that we have already heard is the best part. Many of the remaining tracks are unmemorable filler—“Up 2 You,” and “All Back,” the slower ballads on the album, lack the power of the 2008 hit “With You” or even the apologetic “Crawl” even while showing off Brown’s silky voice at its best. “She Ain’t You,” a mid-tempo nod to Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” is the new single from the album, but owes its success more to the MJ sample than anything else.

The most distasteful song on “F.A.M.E.,” “Wet the Bed,” featuring Ludacris, is exactly as awful as its title suggests. The dripping noises in the background of the track and Ludacris’s opening lines, “Hear the sound of your body drip / As I kiss both sets of lips” are completely out of place. Brown knows how to execute a good, tasteful sex song, as evidenced by the Grammy-nominated “Take You Down,” but completely fails on this attempt.

In addition to representing Brown’s journey towards maturity and from previous adversity to a new future, “F.A.M.E.” showcases Brown’s potential as an R&B artist. He is a gifted vocalist with an innate sense of how to create hit music. All of the elements of future success are present on “F.A.M.E.,” and once Brown figures out how he plans to move forward as a person and an artist, he will probably produce a more cohesive and much better album, but “F.A.M.E.” is not it.

—Staff writer Araba A. Appiagyei-Dankah can be reached at aadankah@fas.harvard.edu.

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