The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Are You Ready For Some Chris Brown? (Or Nah?)

Football season is pretty awkward this year. There’s a widespread unease about watching our modern gladiators destroy each other when so many of them have been accused of battering women and children lately — that is, if the whole concussion thing didn’t already have you feeling vaguely queasy about otherwise amazing moments like this. A seemingly endless parade of NFL players have faced allegations of domestic violence in recent weeks, a shit list including Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, and Jonathan Dwyer. And those are just this year’s examples! That particular sport has become so inextricable from that particular crime that it’s now almost impossible to enjoy the one without the other lingering in the back of your mind. In other words, watching NFL football has become a lot like listening to a Chris Brown record.

In a twisted sense, Brown’s long-delayed album X arrives this week in especially timely fashion, just as domestic violence (and, however obliquely, his own personal history with domestic violence) is dominating the headlines again. Brown, of course, is infamous for beating Rihanna on the eve of the 2009 Grammys and proceeding to act like a defiant jackass ever since. I’ve written before that it’s illogical and inconsistent to reject Brown’s music based on his perceived character unless you’re willing to uniformly avoid any and all music by a certain class of assholes; his odious ongoing public lack of contrition has made him an easy pariah for lazy moralizers, deserving of scorn though he may be. But even as I question whether we as a society can reasonably draw the line regarding whose music is appropriate to consume, I can’t deny the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance I feel when blasting the best Brown tracks.

And he really does have some good ones. Brown’s voice is an undeniably powerful instrument, one of those endlessly elastic soulful tenors, and he knows exactly how to flex it without flaunting it. X matches him with state-of-the-art production that effectively touches on all the major trends dominating mainstream pop, rap, and R&B — the buffet approach you’d expect from a hit-hunter like Brown. “Don’t Be Gone Too Long,” “Body Shots,” and the Diplo-produced “X” weave Brown’s radio-ready R&B into the still-enduring EDM milieu with varying degrees of success. “Loyal” (written by Ty Dolla $ign and Bobby Brackins) and “Came To Do” approximate DJ Mustard’s melodic minimalism, this year’s dominant sound in hip-hop, without actually involving Mustard; NicNac, who produced Ray J’s notorious “I Hit It First,” made both beats. “Add Me In,” which continues Brown’s longstanding Michael Jackson hero worship, would have easily fit in on The 20/20 Experience or the decent posthumous Jackson album 20/20 producer Timbaland oversaw. (Never mind its many painful math puns; “Your body’s an isosceles/ And I’m just trying to try angles,” woof.) And the synthetic-acoustic power ballad “See You Around” could pass for Coldplay; it’s not unlike what One Direction and 5 Seconds Of Summer are doing these days.

Some of those songs work better than others — in particular, the glaringly hypocritical yet musically brilliant “Loyal” still makes me feel terrible for losing myself in its playful neon twirls — and regardless of each song’s quality, it’s impossible not to read special significance into many of Brown’s lyrics. On “See You Around,” for instance, he passionately croons, “I should have loved you way more,” which feels like an understatement coming from a dude who once put his girlfriend in the hospital. Even more grievous is the Kendrick Lamar collab “Autumn Leaves,” which features Brown singing, “I’ve been bleeding in your silence/ I feel safer in your violence”(!) and goes on to conclude that God “must be mad at me.” The complications of conscience take on extra dimensions on “Songs On 12 Play,” in which Brown and Trey Songz take a page from The-Dream (another guy facing domestic abuse allegations) by evoking R. Kelly’s sex-drenched 12 Play in a song of their own. And when Kellz himself shows up to duet with Brown on the expertly conceived slow jam “Drown In It,” the sound of two embattled lotharios getting their rocks off side by side marks X’s point of ultimate creepiness.

On the title track, Brown sings “I swear to God I’m moving on!” For many among his potential audience, it’s not so easy to overlook his past mistakes, particularly when he keeps accumulating them so frequently. Brown’s not exactly hurting for acceptance; his ubiquity on the airwaves and X’s star-studded guest list (Usher, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Tyga, Brandy, Akon, and Jhene Aiko are on there too) are dual reminders that both radio programmers and Brown’s A-List contemporaries long since welcomed him back into the fold. #TeamBreezy rolls deep, yet Brown can’t quite shake his bad reputation. No song on X reads so much like a meta-commentary as the Brandy duet “Do Better,” on which Brown sings, “I’m starting to hate me/ A little more and more each day/ I don’t know me/ It’s like I can’t get out of my own way,” before concluding, “If I knew better, I would do better.” As with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s hard to believe Brown hasn’t learned how to behave like a respectable human being by now. But unlike the NFL, which could take a huge step toward cleaning up its image by sending Goodell packing, Brown can’t fire himself.

CHART WATCH

Selling 88,000 copies of Anomaly was good enough to land Christian rapper Lecrae atop the albums chart this week. It’s his first #1 album and best sales week after 2012’s Gravity sold 72,000 to debut at #3. Billboard points out that Anomaly is only the fifth album to top the Christian Albums chart and the Billboard 200 simultaneously, following works by Chris Tomlin, TobyMac, LeAnn Rimes, and Bob Carlisle. It’s also one of seven top-10 debuts in a week that sees lots of turnover in the top 10. The only remnants from last week’s upper echelon are Maroon 5’s V (#2, 80,000), Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography (#6, 33,000), and the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack (#9, 30,000). This means the Frozen soundtrack has finally departed the top 10 almost 10 months after its release last November. I’m not sure I know how to comprehend the albums chart without Frozen in the top 10 — it’s been there ever since I started writing this column in January — but you know what they say: Let it go, let it go.

About those other high-ranking debuts: Jhene Aiko’s debut album Souled Out enters at #3 with a healthy 70,000. Ryan Adams’ much-ballyhooed self-titled LP starts at #4 by moving 45,000 copies, good for the best chart placement of his career. Lee Brice’s country collection I Don’t Dance begins at #5 with 38,000 in sales. Interpol’s El Pintor sold 31,000 to debut at #7. Country singer Dustin Lynch follows close behind at #8 with about 31,000 for his Where It’s At. And Robert Plant’s Lullaby And … The Ceaseless Roar is at #10 with 29,000 sold, Plant’s eighth top-10 album as a solo artist.

Over on the Hot 100, last week’s top three songs remain locked in sequence, with Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” landing at #1 for a second straight week followed by Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora’s “Black Widow” hits a new peak at #4, bumping “Bang Bang” by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Minaj down to #5. As Billboard notes, this marks the first time since 1999 that women monopolize the top five spots in consecutive weeks. Sam Smith’s long-lasting “Stay With Me” is at #6, Grande’s Zedd collab “Break Free” at #7, and Maroon 5’s “Maps” at #8. MAGIC!’s “Rude” and Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” close out the top 10 at #9 and #10 respectively.

TRACK CITY

Tove Lo – “Moments” & “Timebomb”
Swedish pop singer Tove Lo broke through on the blog level with “Habits (Stay High),” and her follow-up “Not On Drugs” has become one of my favorite singles of the year since it appeared in this column back in February. “Moments” isn’t nearly as catchy as those, but what it lacks in melody it nearly makes up for in memorable lyrics. Among them: “I love freaks, I don’t care if you’re a wild one” and “On my good days I’m charming as fuck.” Certainly! Her other new single this week is the syllable-cramming “Timebomb,” which, if you’re turning to Tove for humongous unforgettable choruses, is more like it. The grand refrain in this one is cathartic after the snare-rolling, laser-blasting verses build up so much tension. Watch the fuck out for this woman.

Jamie Foxx – “Party Ain’t A Party” (Feat. 2 Chainz & DJ Mustard)
You can count on Foxx to show up with an on-trend single every few years (see: Kanye’s “Slow Jamz” in 2004, Foxx’s dreamy Drake collaboration “Fall For Your Type” in 2009), and right on time, here’s his DJ Mustard track. He’s a little late on the 2 Chainz guest verse train, but hey, our man Tauheed is still making the rounds with startling regularity, so it’s not like Foxx missed his 2 Chainz window. Like “Fall For Your Type,” “Party Ain’t A Party” feels more like an excuse for Foxx to inhabit the current reigning style than an inspired bit of craftsmanship. It’s hard to imagine actually partying to this.

August Alsina – “No Love (Remix)” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Mixtape Of The Week and XXL Freshmen honoree Alsina is really good at straight-laced, radio-ready R&B songs. He seems like an odd duet partner for Nicki Minaj until you remember Nicki’s jumped on multiple Usher tracks in the past. On first pass I don’t have a ton of love for “No Love,” but it seems like one of those songs that could drill its way into my consciousness if radio gets ahold of it. Nicki does say it’s her favorite, so. We shall see.

UPDATE: Turns out Alsina was in a coma for three days this week after collapsing on stage Monday night. Happy to hear that he’s woken up alive and well.

Meg Myers – “Go”
“Desire,” the super-intense lust chronicle Meg Myers released earlier this year, got some spins on my local alternative radio station, so I guess it figures that her new song “Go” is driven by skewed electric guitar riffs that could pass for Queens Of The Stone Age or even Atari Teenage Riot. Maybe she doesn’t belong in a pop column, but if that genius whistling hook isn’t pop, what is?

Dillon Francis – “Make It Bounce” (Feat. Major Lazer & Stylo G)
Transformers Moombahton” is a surprisingly satisfying sound. “Make It Bounce” definitely fulfills its promise.

Jennifer Hudson – “He Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Feat. Iggy Azalea)
Sonically, “He Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” exists somewhere between Off The Wall and Thriller, though some big, bright “The Message” synths and an arching disco chorus help the song stand as its own thing. Iggy’s verse here is seriously awful, though, and if the awesome “Walk It Out” didn’t hit, this less memorable track probably won’t either. At the very least, we can all pray that Azalea’s mere presence isn’t enough to make a hit these days.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Iggy Azalea debuted part of a new collaboration with “Fancy” duet partner Charli XCX on stage in London. [Spin]
  • Barbra Streisand performed on late-night TV for the first time in decades by duetting with Jimmy Fallon. [Idolator]
  • Avril Lavigne is rumored to be divorcing from Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger, which is sad but bodes well for her next LP. [Defamer]
  • Inevitably, Frozen’s “Let It Go” will be performed on Glee this season, so get ready for that song to climb the charts again. [Pink Is The New Blog]
  • Jennifer Hudson’s new album JHUD is now streaming in full. [VH1]
  • Believe it or not, Scottish independence would have a ripple effect on UK pop music. [Popjustice]

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