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Chris Brown is coming off his Grammy win for best R&B album for “F.A.M.E.” Now he’s going for the second half of the equation with “Fortune,” out July 3. And if Brown's words at Sunday night's BET Awards are true, it will be his last record.
The Grammy proved that whatever rehab the industry felt Brown still needed to undergo following his 2009 arrest and conviction for assaulting Rihanna was complete. Most of his fans had forgiven him long before that.
Brown’s public persona is a complicated one, as anyone who follows him on Twitter knows. He vacillates between victim and bully; the put-upon target and the aggressor.
In many ways, listening to “Fortune” feels like setting Brown’s tweets to music. The songs, like his tweets, vacillate between fighting words and braggadocio and romance. And, like his tweets, their entertainment value varies greatly. Brown’s “Fortune” is both good and bad on this decidedly mixed bag.
It feels a bit overly generous, but it’s possible to believe that “Fortune” follows an arc: it leads with the hardest-edged urban material and those are also the songs that feature Brown at his most unlikable. He then segues into his crooning, vulnerable side before arriving at the pop that put him on the map (Hint: If you’re looking for material that resembles the sweet bounciness of “Forever,” proceed straight to “Don’t Wake Me Up” (Track 13), which starts around an acoustic guitar before exploding into a joyous, autotuned celebration of sweet dreams).
A number of the songs have already been released to radio, although “Turn Up the Music” is the only one to crack the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 so far. The one thing they almost all have in common is sex. At least, as Usher sings in “Biggest Fan,” he’s practicing safe sex... We think he’s referring to a condom when he says he’s got a Magnum in his wallet...or maybe he’s just really happy to see us.
Brown’s bi-polar personality easily switches from the demanding rap command of “ass up, nose down, damn bitch, adore it” on the pot hazy “Till I Die” featuring Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa to warbling extraordinarily explicit love talk on slow jams “2012” and single “Sweet Love.” Let’s just say “2012” is the first song that takes the Mayan prediction of the world ending this year and combines it with referring to a man’s parts as a “submarine.”
Sex and love are complicated and Brown seems determined to try to capture the swaggering misogyny of “Till I Die” as well as the vulnerability of being on the unrequited end of a love affair on the horribly titled, but otherwise nice, “Stuck on Stupid” (It sounds like it should be a running joke. Instead of “You know you’re a redneck if,” it could be “You know you’re stuck on stupid when...”).
There’s a point on “Mirage,” where Brown mutters “‘Scuse my French,” which is unintentionally hilarious given that he’s dropping the F-bomb and the N-word in nearly every song. It’s also noteworthy, that “Fortune” may be the first album we’ve heard that manages to name drop Sarah Palin, Lionel Richie, and sushi restaurant Matsuhisa.
There’s an earnestness to ballad “Don’t Judge Me,” where Brown in his lilting tenor sings, “Everything I say right now will be used in another fight.” While it’s sung in the context of a romantic quarrel, it rings true about his every public move. Contrast that with the aerobic workout of “Turn Up The Music,” or the Ke$ha-crossed-with-LMFAO electropop of “Bassline,” and Brown is either very versatile or very unfocused.
Regardless, what he’s not is unique. There’s very little on “Fortune” that feels compelling. Working with a raft of top name producers— including Polow da Don, The Underdogs, The Messengers —Brown gave them too much power over the end product: the production is what stands out, for better or worse, on most tracks rather than his voice.
Brown is a strong live performer mostly because his dancing skills are so exemplary. Without that visual component and relying totally on his vocals, he’s good but not great. And when the songs are so scattershot as the ones on “Fortune,” it feels little like the fans’ misfortune that the oft-delayed “Fortune” didn’t spend a little more time in the R&D phase.
"Good Fortune" is available tomorrow.