Chris Brown, Seeking an Age-Appropriate Sound
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Eighteen years old going on 14, R&B prodigy Chris Brown has one of those intensely malleable, excessively marketable personalities onto which anything can be projected. Fond of modified moonwalking and benign, poppy club jams, earnest as a puppy, he's Nelly without the blunts, Usher without the troublesome wife, Michael Jackson without the ick.
Brown's sophomore disc, "Exclusive," the second half of a one-two punch that began with his worldbeating performance at the MTV awards, is exactly as good as it needs to be. It's constructed to appeal to both teenage girls and their warier mothers, which is why Brown spends most of the disc careening, pinball-like, between equally unlikely roles as a pocket-size love machine and a wistful purveyor of Quiet Storm-ish love ballads.
Despite the presence of such decorated beat makers as Scott Storch, Swizz Beatz and Will.I.Am, "Exclusive" sounds excessively conventional. Whether its organizers were afraid that the disc's potential fan base --mallgoers rather than clubgoers -- would be frightened by too many spaceship-y blurps and the presence of Swedish producers, or whether they figured (correctly, as it turns out) that Brown's everyday appeal would be smothered by too many effects, "Exclusive" sounds like the most daring album of 2002.
After a bang-up opening homage to the D.C.-bred funk offshoot go-go ("Throwed"), "Exclusive" settles into a pleasant, too-comfortable groove, with a few too many mid-tempo booty call ballads and sound-alike club cuts. "With You" with its slow, stuttering beat and actual guitars, is such close kin to Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" that it may be legally actionable. The mystifyingly underachieving single "Wall to Wall" lands smack in the middle of this otherwise overly sedate disc with the force of a neutron bomb. A thumping, hook-happy beaut, it has just the right mix of familiarity and invention. The slow grind "Take You Down" is but one of many examples of junior varsity horn-dogging: When Brown assures his would-be conquest, "It ain't my first time," well, it's every bit as awkward as you'd imagine. Maybe more.
Most of "Exclusive's" amorousness is of the PG-13, I-just-want-to-get-with-you-girl variety, though the randiest thing here, the iffy party track "Get at Ya," is unfortunately placed right next to a song about Brown's mama ("Mama"). To Brown, females are either boy-eating temptresses or sent straight from heaven, which suggests a lack of romantic nuance that will serve him well in his future R&B career.
For now, most of the heavy leering is left to guest stars Kanye West (the vaguely pop-rockish "Down") and T-Pain ("Kiss Kiss," which answers the question of what it would sound like if Nelly were kidnapped and forced to mate with a vocoder). Their presence is intended to confer not only cred but also the sort of grown-up sexual charge that Brown can't, or at least, really shouldn't, provide. But their basso-by-comparison voices just complicate things: The more they sound like lecherous uncles, the more Brown sounds like Webster on a really hot date.
Chris Brown is scheduled to perform at 1st Mariner Arena on Dec. 9, and at Verizon Center on Dec. 22.
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Throwed," "With You," "Wall to Wall"