That Chris Brown remains a viable commercial proposition in the R&B music world is due to abundant, undeniable talent which is again showcased on his latest album Fortune, says Si Hawkins.
Chris Brown's rich array of skills
"Take me as I am, not who I was," pleads Chris Brown during the tellingly titled Don't Judge Me, early on this latest comeback record. It's an impossible dream for the controversial R&B star, who has made more headlines for pugilism than pop in recent years.
The shocking denouement of his relationship with Rihanna continues to weigh heavy - in the UK, posters for this release have been plastered with "report domestic violence" stickers - and after a successful return with the album F.A.M.E last year, last month he revived that punchy reputation by getting into a brawl with the Canadian rapper Drake.
That the Virginia-born singer remains a viable commercial proposition - rather than be forced into a Mike Tyson-like sub-career, wallowing in his own infamy - is because of abundant, undeniable talent. Armed with an impressively versatile larynx, plus the requisite moves and magnetism, Brown has ridden the inevitable backlash with bewildering aplomb. Indeed, there are moments here where he revels in the bad-boy image, regrettably, as otherwise this record does much to move R&B forward.
Fortune, as the name suggests, was originally intended as side two of the F.A.M.E LP, but is hardly a collection of offcuts. Many listeners will struggle to forgive an early burst of aggressive misogyny - on Till I Die, and from the guest rapper Nas on Mirage - but, if pressed, Brown could conceivably call this a concept album, mirroring his own rehabilitation. Mentions of the opposite sex become noticeably more respectful as the record progresses, culminating in a trio of love songs that, ironically, are also its dullest tracks.
Elsewhere, Brown's varied team of producers have conjured a wide, often wonderfully novel range of musical canvases. Particularly interesting is 4 Years Old, a quasi-trip-hop track on which the now contemplative singer admits that: "I feel so alone, alone in this world." Hints of introspection are also apparent on Don't Judge Me ("'cause it could get ugly," he warns, ominously), over effects that sound oddly like a wooden ship listing in the wind.
Lyrical concerns aside, Fortune's intended ethos is club-friendliness, and the comical call-and-response of Bassline should certainly prove popular. Don't Wake Me Up - helmed by the ambient maestro turned Madonna producer William Orbit - is pleasingly thoughtful for a thumping trance tune, but the finest cut is the finale, Trumpet Lights. A thrilling mix of laser-guided electro, metallic drums and, yes, trumpets, it's a bold departure in both respects.
Deeply flawed but never floored, Brown remains R&B's number-one contender.