Chris Brown, ‘Fortune’ (RCA)
Release Date: July 3, 2012
In Magic Mike, the new Steven Soderbergh film based on its star Channing Tatum’s real-life experience as a teenage stripper, the central character specializes in contagious delusion. Mike sees himself as a businessman, an artisanal furniture designer, a mentor to his even more naïve pupil; anything but a stripper. He refuses to acknowledge who he really is.
Moreover, the enthusiasm and craft with which he drops his drawers are so seductive that they periodically blind his good-girl love interest, who functions as the film’s moral compass. With the help of some slick choreography, Mike transcends his humble background and the seediness of his surroundings to become a genuine artist, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. And an artist — at least as one as handsome as Tatum, and as earnest as the rapscallion he portrays — can, for the length of a fabulous pop tune, get away with nearly anything.
Chris Brown started out a lot like Mike, back before he found himself starring in a much darker, messier movie. Initially marketed by Jive Records as an emphatically 16-year-old yet streetwise African-American variant on the company’s many white teenybopper acts (from Britney to Backstreet Boys), Brown soon transitioned into a young-adult crooner/hoofer positioned somewhere between Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. Following Usher’s footsteps right behind Ne-Yo, the Virginian updated MJ’s dance moves but retained their alchemy: In the video for his 2007 hit “With You,” Brown seemingly wills his beloved’s appearance solely through the intensity of his moonwalk; even a passing biker gives him an approving nod. His reward: multiple smash hits and the hand of Rihanna, the spoils of a man who’d eclipsed teen-pop status and achieved full-grown R&B legitimacy.
And then, the night before the 2009 Grammys…well, you know the rest. The ballads on that year’s Graffiti, where he acted as if he were the real victim of his domestic-abuse arrest, made a bad situation worse for those still willing to engage with his music at all. The uptempo bangers took him into an adventurous place too European for R&B radio, but not pop enough for Top 40. Still, much of the world quickly learned to forgive and forget, allowing for the possibility, at best, that the 20-year-old Brown was caught in a cycle of abuse instigated by his stepfather, or, at worst, simply blaming Rihanna. Meanwhile, finally Brown cracked the musical code with last year’s chart-topping, Grammy-winning F.A.M.E.: techno for the club crowd (“Yeah 3X,” “Beautiful People”), techno for the hip-hop crowd (“Deuces,” “Look at Me Now”), and porno for the slow-jams crowd (“Wet the Bed”). Once again, Brown was omnipresent, and not just in the news.
And he’s not going away. Here’s a partial list of the acts whose records Brown has appeared on over the last two years: Big Sean, Keri Hilson, T-Pain, The Game, Ace Hood, New Boyz, Pitbull, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Nicki Minaj, DJ Khaled, David Guetta, David Banner, Brandy, and Tank. Between those guest spots and 11 charting solo singles since 2011, Brown has been thoroughly normalized on R&B and pop radio: If the rainbow coalition of little kids hanging who react to Brown’s emergence at the beginning of the “Yeah 3x” video as if he were an ice cream truck represent the comically cute side of his public-image rehabilitation, his notorious, ill-advised appearance on the remix of Rihanna’s awkwardly raunchy “Birthday Cake” represents the utterly shameless side.
That shameless side, alas, dominates Fortune. The pre-release singles aimed simultaneously at the R&B and pop charts have either stalled (“Sweet Love,” “Till I Die”) or tanked (“Don’t Wake Me Up”), and deservedly so — their thin melodies and stock shock lyrics echo better Brown records that are still played everywhere. (Wonder what Brown’s parole officer thinks of the “Pimps up, hoes down / Ass up, nose down” refrain of the proudly stoned Big Sean/Wiz Khalifa collabo “Till I Die.”) The rest is even worse. There’s more than the usual number of midtempo ballads that once again mix sex-fantasy titillation with his now-familiar toxic defensiveness: “Just let the past just be the past,” he sings on “Don’t Judge Me,” but it’s hard to overlook the elephant in the room when he keeps drawing attention to it. “You heard about my image, but I could give a flying motherfuck who’s offended,” the anger-management graduate snaps over the dubstep crawl of “Bassline.”
Brown wants us to accept him as both a bad boy and a rehabilitated lover, a difficult proposition made more challenging by goofy moves like singing, “You’re my biggest fan / I want you to holla” to his coital companion while accompanied by an actual cheering audience. The album’s most compelling sounds get saddled with songs either forgettable (“Trumpet Lights”) or regrettable (“Mirage,” a sinuous reggae fusion that’s Nas-boosted but unnecessarily nasty). So, all that’s left is “Turn Up the Music,” the purely uplifting club-pop hit that says more in its aching, wordless chorus than any lyric elsewhere. It’s the only thing here remotely capable of redeeming the album or, more importantly, him.
Fortune makes it easy for Chris Brown’s haters and harder on his many fans. Put “Turn Up the Music” in the same category as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: great pop art so thoroughly engaged with the power of transcendence that it can momentarily allow you to block out the personal transgressions of the artist, a redemptive force that rises above all the dirt. The rest of this dud just adds to it.