It’s been two-and-a-half years since Chris Brown transformed overnight from pop music poster boy to pariah. The February 2009 domestic violence incident with then-girlfriend Rihanna will stay with him forever, but his career seems to have somehow fully recovered. He’s an inescapable presence on R&B and Top 40 radio, receives a hero’s applause from his peers after awards show performances on MTV and BET and has even buddied up with Justin Bieber, the personification of all that is good and pure. While his excommunication from the pop mainstream has been lifted, Brown remains a divisive figure. But for two reasons, his Saturday concert at Verizon Center proved that a debate over his place in the pop landscape is a waste of time.
The first is that the intense devotion of his fans ensures that he will be a presence for many years to come. And the second is that he’s such a middling musical talent that any discussion about his place in pop is not worth having.
About those fans: They are young, mostly female and outrageously loud. Verizon Center was far from sold out — many upper-level sections contained only a smattering of fans — but the screams of those present were constant and fever-pitched. The opening notes of every song were greeted with hollers of recognition. Each time the 22-year-old Tappahannock, Va., native removed an article of clothing there were squeals of delight. (He seemed to change outfits only in order to have new clothes to tear off.) And on those not-so-rare occasions when he grabbed his crotch or thrust his pelvis, the shrieks went from merely happy to unhinged.
That Brown’s suggestive gyrations earned the biggest cheers was no surprise and, honestly, fitting. It’s what he does best. His singing is pedestrian, and his songs are innocuous studio creations that toggle between crossover R&B cheese (“She Ain’t You,” “Beautiful People”) and slow jam sleaze (“Leave the Club,” “With You”). Dancing is his primary strength, particularly that of the dirty variety. But he’s also smooth, athletic and fully committed to his moves. Less than 10 minutes into his hour-and-a-half performance, Brown was dripping sweat. It was easy to be reminded why as a teenage phenom he was pegged as an heir to Usher and maybe even Michael Jackson.
But while his dancing ability and stage presence haven’t abandoned him, his development of a unique musical persona is nowhere to be found. About the best he’s come up with so far is a viewpoint that’s overly-graphic romantic (“Wet the Bed”) or petulant (“Deuces”). Brown was often something to see, but there were minimal moments of musical merit.
For a big-production arena show, there were surprisingly few bells and whistles. A two-level setup allowed Brown to split his time between the regular stage and a platform about 20 feet up, racing from top to bottom via ramps on either side. The standard backup dancers were in tow, along with a backing band, whose sounds were swallowed by pre-recorded beats. Videos accompanied a few songs and occasionally served as interludes. The crowd’s favorite showed Brown getting ready to take a shower and cueing up a song before hopping in — one of his own, of course.
That self-satisfaction was evident throughout the night, down to dubbing his recent album and current tour “F.A.M.E.” It’s an acronym for “forgiving all my enemies,” and it’s representative of how Brown has turned his career into an us-against-them battle. His DJ repeatedly asked for shouts of “Team Breezy,” as if there were another team out there to do battle against. Brown rarely addressed the audience. The only mildly personal statement: “My mama said sometimes it’s good to be at the bottom,” that it was only up from there, and that he couldn’t get a record on the radio or a video on TV. He didn’t bother finishing the statement — the title of his next song, “Look At Me Now,” made the point for him. That a video of veteran Busta Rhymes rapping his essential portion of the song was the most enthralling vocal performance of the night proved another.
Right now, there’s no need to make ignoring Chris Brown a moral issue. The quality of his music is reason enough.