X * Chris Brown * R&B/Pop * September 16, 2014
The road to Chris Brown’s release of X has been a long, bumpy one. From all accounts, this album has been in production since late 2012 and has undergone massive amounts of reformulations and delays on its way to release. While some of the delays were due to Brown wanting to put his best foot forward, most of them had to do with his constant string of person problems; from being ordered to rehab and then being kicked out to serving about four months in jail for violating his parole from the Rihanna incident. Many people wondered what the final project would sound like, with so many different directions seeming to be undertaken from the various leaks and the (excellent) mixtape that Brown released late in 2013. Would he showcase any growth? Would he use his personal woes in the content or try to ignore them an make a more party-centered album? After some of the lackluster live performances over the past few years, what would he sound like? There were so many variables and much opportunity for things to go wrong.
Now that the wait is over, will fans be heartened or disappointed by the final result? There is only one way to find out…
1. X – The title track and the third single from the standard edition of the album is what starts us off. The song is most assuredly about an ex that Brown feels has done him wrong in the past and wants to make her way back to him. As was said in the review of the single, the production of this song bounces between an R&B ballad and an EDM club track. While it is definitely an interesting choice, in some ways it ruins the mood that the song starts of with and has during its more lowkey bridges. The best part of this track is Brown’s vocals. Starting of low and somber, the emotions he displays continue to build as he works his way to the chorus and tops it off with a shout that he is determined to move on (yes, that was a part of the original review). Without a hint of autotune in sight, his vocals are dynamic and his baritone is incredibly strong. A strong way to begin.
2. Add Me In – Featuring a production that sounds like it stepped out of the 80’s, this synth-heavy R&B dance track has Brown taking the lyrical theme of mathematics to talk about replacing the object of his affection’s boyfriend. The clever metaphor is executed well thought out and only has one misstep (he says hypothesis, which a science term, when I think he might have been going for a play on words with hypotenuse). There are a lot of fun illusions in the song, but the best is the lyric answers are usually in the back, which will elicit a smile from just about anyone. Brown’s vocals are strong and decisive with just a hint of sensuality, a perfect match for the fun and flirty mood of the song. This would be the perfect choice for a single that could get both urban and pop radio play.
3. Loyal – The first official single from the standard edition, the upbeat production and the overall sound of the track are the obvious reason that this song became such a big summer hit. The lyrics are incredibly misogynistic, and that’s okay; an artist’s point of view does not have to be positive in order for him or her to express it. However, the song, for what it is, is fairly solid lyrically. There are a few missteps, like around the final bridge, that depart from the overall theme, but it stays on the subject that women can’t be trusted because they are only after money. Whether this song makes a distinction between women, hoes, and bitches is unclear. This track isn’t awful, but it is a pretty jarring break from the two songs that came before (and the ones that come after). It was likely included because it got such strong radio play.
4. New Flame – If you heard the version of this track that leaked in early 2014, you will notice that the production, while mostly the same, is sped up slightly and autotuned samples on the chorus are not as much to the forefront. The biggest changes seem to be the addition of Usher to the track and some redone vocals by Brown. These seems to have been smart decisions because they add an interest factor to the track that just wasn’t there before. Brown is far more engaged and the spin that Usher puts on the second verse is far better than what Brown demonstrated on the original (likely demo) version. The only negative is the mostly non-concept verse by Rick Ross, which breaks the flow by spending his time talking about his money. A track about finding new love in the club, this continues a theme that was starting to develop with the first two songs.
5. Songs On 12 Play – Brown started rumors that he and Trey Songz were going to do a joint tour together and this track might be one of the reasons why. Using the titles of tracks sung by R. Kelly, they do a good job of seducing the ladies with the promise of a night of passion like no other. The biggest lyrical downfall is that about half of the songs that they refer to are not on 12 Play, but that can be excused because it would be hard to fit some of those titles into this song. The production is surprisingly mid-tempo considering the subject matter. You can hear the homage that the song pays to Kelly in its style, plus it uses reworked samples from Stroke You Up and Sex Me. The big surprise is the vocals. While Brown does a good job vocally, he is vastly overshadowed by Trey Songs, who does such a striking R. Kelly impression that most listeners will be doing double takes and checking the liner notes. A standout track despite the lyrical fault.
6. 101 (Interlude) – This interlude is just slightly over a minute long, but it will have all of Team Breezy asking why there isn’t a full version of this song available. Transitioning nicely from the last track, including using the Half On A Baby line again, it is easy to believe that this was the precursor (or inspiration) to Songs On 12 Play. And considering that the next track features R. Kelly himself, it serves as both an intro and outro.
7. Drown In It – There is no mistaking what this song is about. Brown and Kelly are singing about taking a long swim in your waters. The production is an incredible aid to the mood of the track with its constant, pounding four-beat bassline and somewhat muted and distorted melody. The vocals from Kelly are his usual strong performance, but it is Brown that owns this song with a surprisingly mature tone on his verse that almost made many of us think that there was a third singer on the track. His baritone adds a sexuality to this track that Kelly just couldn’t bring on his own and you will wish he didn’t switch back to his traditional tenor for the bridge. A standout track from beginning to end.
8. Came To Do – The inclusion of this track after seven such strong ones is somewhat of a letdown. The fact that this song and Loyal have the same producer (NicNac) is obvious before the first few bars finish, even without the audio watermark. The major difference is that this beatwork has a slightly darker sound to it than Loyal. All about hitting the club to find someone to turn up with, this track is also lyrically lazy, especially in comparison with the tracks that precede it. The phrase You know what I came to do is repeated at least eight times in a row at the end of both verses. Akon’s feature adds very little to the track, with his bars focusing more on the man that the woman is with than the woman herself. Brown’s vocals are strong, if somewhat disinterested. While it might be a fun dance track, it still just seems to serve as album filler.
9. Stereotype – The production of this track starts off sounding like part of it was lifted from an 8-bit video game before the richer synth and the pseudo-handclaps work their way in, but it works. The most distracting part are the Lil’ John screams that are layered over the bridge and chorus, but they occur very briefly. About a woman that Brown knew would break his heart the moment he met her but got involved with anyway, this is another track that is much more up-tempo than the subject matter would suggest. The lyrics are solid with well constructed verses and a fairly tight chorus. Brown does his part with strong vocals that are engaged and emotional, but there is just something about the song that misses the mark a little bit. You find yourself tuning out a little about halfway through. In the end, it’s a song that people will listen to but probably not single out as a favorite.
10. Time For Love – This is the first track that has a hint of Brown using autotune, but it’s very brief and barely noticeable. Sounding like it sampled Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long, there is an upbeat feeling about the production of this track that works with the theme of being excited at the prospect of starting something with a new person. Brown’s vocals are good, but at times they melt into the production and he is a little hard to understand. Not as strong as some of the other tracks, but nowhere near a bad song.
11. Lady In A Glass Dress (Interlude) – Lady in a glass dress/I can see right through you. It is such a strong opener for track that less than 90 seconds long. The dreamy production has such a lovely quality to it that it sucks you in right away. Brown’s vocals and wonderfully layered harmonies make this mini-track about a woman that is afraid to move on after a bad relationship. We can only hope that full version of this is released (or leaked) sometime in the near future.
12. Autumn Leaves – The subdued folk guitar in the intro set the tone right away for a track that shows a deeper side of Brown. The illusion of leaves falling to the ground is used to convey the feeling of both falling in love and falling into doubt about loving someone. The lyrical depth of this song is on point, being more than just a surface track but being accessible enough to be understood by a vast amount of people. The soft production style evokes a feeling of autumn, although the odd sample of a woman moaning placed in some of the silent places is a bit distracting. The Kendrick Lamar feature is strong as well, having him offering advice about Brown’s situation (in the song and in real life). Despite the production misstep, this is a standout track and one of the strongest on the album.
13. Do Better – Listening to this track, you begin to see the theme that has developed over the course of the album. We, as listeners, seem to be following the path of Brown during the breakup, reunion, and final breakup with Rihanna. It becomes very obvious with this track, about a relationship between two people where one person seems to have moved on without the other. Brandy Norwood takes on the female side of this equation, offering a balance that shows that both people seem not to know how to make this relationship work. The production is a strong aid to the subject, showcasing ebbing guitar riffs and a flowing bassline that doesn’t seem to let go for too long. Both singers give strong performances, relating anguish through their tones and blending well with each other. Another standout track.
14. See You Around – Starting with a rising piano and guitar duet as the opener, this track that almost has a soft rock feel to it. About a relationship that is ending because the woman he loves is in love with someone else and trying not to be bitter about it, this is a side of Brown that is good to hear. This track and the two preceding it show a diversity that he doesn’t show in his radio singles too often. Brown’s vocals are good here, sounding as though he’s having trouble letting go but doesn’t know what else to do in the situation. The track even ends in an awkward way, as if he can’t keep his composure any longer and just stops talking. A standout track.
15. Don’t Be Gone Too Long – This track is probably the most autotune heavy on the album. Brown’s vocals are almost unrecognizable with the exception of his adlibs and, the sad part is, he doesn’t really need it. The lower register singing from him is interesting in itself and offers a mature tone that is welcomed on the track. Ariana Grande’s vocals are fairly weak as well; she’s undersings to the point of being almost unhearable at some points. The upshot of this is that the listener pays a lot more attention to the generic EDM production than the strong lyrics that are featured on this song. About two people who are asking one another to give their growing love a chance, it features lines like: I dug a single a seed into the ground/I hope it grows/In a year or two, if you’re around/You’ll see a rose. A strong track, but the off-putting production keeps it from being a standout.
16. Body Shots – A song about being single and carefree and making a one-time connection in a club, this is essentially a mid-tempo dance track, but is the strongest dance track on the album. The line I’m about to do some body shots…on that pussy, baby will evoke a loud laugh the first time you hear it. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, but it is solid enough lyrically. The production sounds like a cross between a 80’s funk track and an early 2000’s EDM song, which makes it stand out from an increasingly large pack. It won’t be man people’s favorite, but it’s worth a few listens.
17. Drunk Texting – This is an absolute surprise of a track. Jhené Aiko lends her sweet vocals to this track about getting drunk and letting all of those forbidden feelings go in electronic form. The production is mid-tempo and incredibly fun on its own, making it a contrast with the subject matter. The little electronic flourishes that tinkle over the top of the beatwork add that extra something that makes the instrumental of this top notch. The vocals are great, with Aiko taking a bit of a background vocalist roll in the track but matching Brown’s subtly adlibs note for note. There is lyrical strength here, too, making this song relatable without making it depressing, which it had the potential to be. A standout track.
18. Lost In Ya Love – The last track on the standard version of the album, Brown seems to found some happiness in the track about being absolutely obsessed with someone. The happy production is a good place to leave things and Brown’s vocals are engaged and enthusiastic. There isn’t much to say about this song, as it’s not nearly as strong as many of the others on the album, but it doesn’t really fall into the realm of unnecessary album filler either.
19. Love More (Bonus Track) – One of the three tracks that was released as single before the final direction of X was thought of. This seems like a step backward in many ways, what with the growth Brown displays throughout the standard edition, but it is understandable why it is included. About two people who just want to turn up and fuck (the actual title of the song is Fuck More, but that can’t be displayed in certain stores), this is the most up-tempo track on the album. Meant for the clubs, Brown showcases vocals that sound like they came from earlier albums over a techno/pop beat. Nicki Minaj’s verse sounds like one of her leftovers as well as you will hear a lot of lines that sound familiar to you. Not meant to be taken seriously, this track might be jarring if listening to it after the rest of the album, but can be fun on its own.
20. Don’t Think They Know (Bonus Track) – Featuring a sample from an unreleased track by the late, great Aaliyah and a sample from Jon B.’s They Don’t Know, this track is a pretty good fit with the rest of the content of the album. About Brown trying to convince the woman he’s involved with that it doesn’t matter if other people don’t understand their relationship as long as they do, this was the track that got people really interested to hear the first interation of X. The production is somewhat minimal, featuring a strong bassline and distorted, subdued melody. Brown’s vocals are good, strong, and engaging. While it’s not a standout, its a nice track that is hard to bypass.
21. Fine China (Bonus Track) – What was meant to be the first official single from X has been relegated to bonus track status, but it’s understandable why. While this is a good song, it doesn’t exactly fit the mood of the final project. Still, there is something irresistible about the Michael Jackson-esque production that features one of the best violin adds that has been included in a song in a while, this is fun love song about valuing an irreplaceable love. Brown works his vocals to full effect, making what would have been a strong instrumental an even strong song. Featuring the graceful writing of Eric Bellinger, there is no wonder why this song was a hit.
After listening to the album, the one thing that people should be happy to come away with is that, despite his personal problems, Chris Brown managed to craft one of his best albums to date. Deeply personal and showcasing the growth that many hoped would come with the experiences that he has had over the past few years, you see a maturity in his music that seems to run in contrast to what we see of him on blogs and he showcases from time to time. While I cannot decided for the buyer whether or not they choose to support him, I will say that those who do will not be disappointed with either version of the album they purchase.