Chris Brown - Autumn Leaves (feat. Kendrick Lamar)Chris Brown – X
RCA Records; 2014
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“I can make you a believer, if I turn the nonsense down…”

Ascension. Downfall. Redemption. Get caught slipping. Then ascend again. Then fall again.

This has become Chris Brown. In the five years since that fateful Sunday in 2009, troubles with the law, airing out grievances with women, and public temper tantrums have eclipsed an R&B/pop star in the making. Say what you will about Brown, but he has been a fighter (no pun intended) through it all. And X, which was delayed almost to a point of no return, is what happens when a man who’s been knocked down countless times, decides to stand up again.

X has tales ranging from the freaky to the dark to the broken-hearted, but as Chris Brown is a performer first and foremost, dance music is what gives the album its pulse. The album’s earliest lead singles “Loyal” – looking past its deliciously spiteful message – and the Nicki Minaj-featured “Love More” are too infectious not to bob your head along to. That same danceable sound manifests in “Add Me In” and “Came to Do” (aka “Loyal’s” less-appealing little brother).

It lives and breathes EDM, as well. Brown dabbled in this before – see “Look At Me Now” and “Wall to Wall” – but there was an urban feel to these songs. No such half-stepping exists on X, as Brown opens his arms widely to pop and dance crowds on cuts like “Body Shots” and “Don’t Be Gone Too Long.” Brown, it seems, is taking a cue from his mentor Usher and attempting to sell his rebel nature and upbeat sound to a different audience. He’s not about to be contained or defined, not when he’s feeling as creatively free as he is now.

But even as it boasts liberation from conventional sounds, X takes listeners into the prison that Brown has built for himself and which others have constructed for him. On the standout duet with Brandy “Do Better,” Brown reaches the breaking point of a relationship that meant something to him, lamenting on the hook, “It’s like I can’t get out of my own way… if I knew better, I would do it better”. “Stereotype” begins violently, with Brown revealing his hands “are bleeding [from] holding on to the words from your every lie.” And the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Autumn Leaves” is equally bleak, with Brown admitting “I feel safer in [the] violence” and blaming the one who’s leaving him for everything falling apart; Lamar’s feature verse builds on the despair as well (“tell me how I stay positive/ when they never see good in me?”).

There is some light amidst the gloom and doom. Chris Brown goes from being inspired by Michael Jackson to becoming a full-blown faux MJ on “Fine China,” “Don’t Think They Know,” and “Stereotype.” Even “X” sounds like a modern-day “Leave Me Alone.” “Songs on 12 Play” has Brown and Trey Songz paying homage to R. Kelly’s most-lauded album, name-dropping songs from 12 Play and just as sex-drenched as its namesake. Fittingly, the real Kels shows up later on “Drown In It,” an unapologetic ode to the proper appreciation of vagina that Robert’s “Marry The Pussy” failed to be. But “love” itself is absent from X: even the songs with “love” in their titles, are merely about trysts and longing for a feeling that’s gone missing.

The problem is that the album tries too hard to be something it isn’t. Brown wants X to be a 17-track “fuck you” to critics and ex-loves, but you can see through the smoke and mirrors that he still cares about people caring. If he’s really moved on – whether’s that’s from public opinion or a certain someone – why tell listeners that at the start of the album (“X”) and then continually insist such on “Do Better” and “See You Around?” Who is Brown trying to convince – us or himself?

We know what the album WANTS to be, but we see what it really is. The same holds true for Chris Brown. What’s worse for the artist: knowing that you’re good and can possibly be great; or knowing that you’re the only one standing in the way of this greatness and not even trying to change? And if you can’t conquer your demons, is at least confronting them enough? These are the questions, more than any related to Rihanna or Karrueche, that loom largest for the listener at album’s end. And for that, at least, X is worth a couple spins.