Chris Brown performs at the BET Awards on July 1. (Matt Sayles, Invision )
In the search for great pop music that catches a glimpse of the future, Chris Brown's new album, "Fortune," is planted firmly in the here and now. A defiant, brash, glistening recording filled with state-of-the-art sounds and of-the-moment producers and songwriters, the album, while fresh in July 2012, feels stamped with a "use by" date.
This is due mostly to Brown's reflex of curbing his creative impulses at nearly every turn, with a few killer exceptions, and showing a conservatism unbecoming such a self-styled renegade.
"Fortune" comes on the heels of Brown's successful and acclaimed 2011 album "F.A.M.E.," and — as the title suggests — can be seen as a sort of companion piece, like Nelly's 2004 double-disc releases "Sweat" and "Suit."
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And like the St. Louis pop-rap king of the early '00s, Brown, first on "F.A.M.E." and now on "Fortune," finds himself roaming that ever-shifting realm where pop, hip-hop, R&B and, increasingly, electronic dance music overlap, banking that he'll continue hitting as long as he stays the course, sticks to his code, and keeps his eyes on the sounds of today.
Brown's "F.A.M.E." (an acronym for "forgiving all my enemies") hit with a solid combination of freaky, heavy-duty R&B bangers and the requisite sex-in-bed seduction numbers. But "Fortune," his fifth studio album, is the work of an artist who has gone all-in with a handful of commercial tracks designed to get Our Hero paid and back in America's good graces. There's not a beat on this album nearly as wicked as that on "Look at Me Now," his 2011 hit featuring rappers Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, but Brown certainly knows how to hit the dance floor hard.
At its worst — which is to say, within the first four beats of the lazy, predictable first track, "Turn Up the Music," or the hook of the second song, "Bassline," which is Brown-speak for his manhood ("Girls like my .... ") — "Fortune" reveals an artist more concerned with calculating than creating.
His definition of "fortune" involves wealth and the power (if not respect) it affords, rather than luck, and Brown repeats variations of this truth over and over again. Over the course of 50-plus minutes, he brags about his stacks of money, and his skills as an artist and a fighter (he claims he's so tough, "Bruce Lee want to throw the towel in") and a lover while repeatedly claiming indifference to, or avoiding, topics of import.
"You heard about my image but I could give a flying .... who's offended," he declares on "Bassline" before bragging — if you can call it that — about his prowess: "Baby, if I go any harder I'm gonna get you out your garter/ But you're somebody's daughter." Only Brown knows exactly what he means by that line.
There are standouts, most notably "Mirage," a midtempo jam produced by British writer Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, which sounds like 2015. "Trumpet Lights" closes the 14-track album with quick, 130 beats-per-minute urgency; the Jerome Harmon-produced track is designed for massive sound systems pumping to thousands and feels more like an updated, reimagined Chicago house jam from 1995 than a 2012 album closer by a top-selling pop singer.
And "4 Years Old," while sappy and obvious in its sentiment, offers a glimpse of Brown in self-reflective mode. He admits that he's still growing, and he's been wasting time he could be using for personal improvement. "I feel so alone, so alone in this world — but got everything I want."
Look, it's easy to take Chris Brown to task for his felonies, both of the artistic and criminal variety. He's got a big target on his back after assaulting ex-girlfriend Rihanna, and he seems unconcerned with that target's chronic growth as he moves through this world and his career develops.
In fact, he seems much more concerned with his own self-respect — and, to his mind, how he has earned and deserves it. As he says in "Don't Judge Me," "Please don't judge me and I won't judge you/ Because it could get ugly before it gets beautiful." He also adds this gem: "Can we please change the subject?"
If this is about self-respect, and Brown's desire to prove to himself and others that his moral code is just as viable as that of self-righteous finger-waggers who don't understand the least thing about his circumstance, then at least he should give some hint of that on "Fortune." But he doesn't. He's got what Joan Didion describes in her essay "On Self Respect" as "a kind of moral nerve," one of the kind who "have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running ... to receive absolution from the wronged parties."
"Do it look like I care if you got a man? I don't," sings Brown to a potential lover on "2012," perfectly capturing both the limits of his bro-code and the extent of his self-involvement. The song, after all, features Brown bragging to a lady that the red skies of Armageddon outside won't bring the world's end until after he climaxes.
And he climaxes a lot on "Fortune." He just doesn't seem to care too much whether anyone else does, or what happens to the world after. And that's a shame.
Two stars (out of four)
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