Chris Brown’s Royalty is his second album this year, and its cover art may be the most promising thing about it. A black and white photograph shows Brown cradling his daughter Royalty, who was born in March. The photo sparks hope the disc will mark a new, more reflective musician, and not the mercurial but talented R&B singer whose exploits are scattered across gossip blogs like the tattoos that adorn much of his body.
Those expectations are dashed with the first track, “Back to Sleep,” where Brown sings that he wants to “fck you back to sleep, girl.” Sonically, at least, Royalty* isn’t as unrepentantly bratty as his February collaboration with rapper Tyga, Fan of A Fan: The Album. Here, Brown attempts to expand beyond his repertoire of mattress-humping ballads and drunk-and-disorderly club jams. “Make Love” has a vintage soul sound marked by Rhodes keyboards, while “Who’s Gonna (Nobody)” is a mélange of inspirations: Brown sings the first verse in the manner of Johnny Gill’s “My My My,” then delivers a chorus reminiscent of Keith Sweat’s “Nobody.” It’s a mess, but it works.
Thematically, Brown is still the guy claiming on “Blow It in the Wind,” “My n*ggs are just young, black and rich/What up?” Yes, the 26-year-old is still a young’un after debuting with “Run It!” a decade ago at the precocious age of 16. He splits time between Las Vegas EDM (“Zero,” which sounds like a Chromeo outtake), the nightclub (“Wrist” featuring protégé Solo Lucci), Everyhood, U.S.A. (“Picture Me Rollin’”), which mines the current vogue for old-school G-funk and, of course, the bedroom.
For his female fans, there’s “Day One,” where he testifies, “Everything that I’ve been through/I ain’t about to act brand new…you’ve been down for me since day one.” They’re undoubtedly used to Brown unpacking his personal thoughts with metaphors instead of candid revelations. In 2012, there was “Don’t Judge Me,” and on Royalty there is “No Filter,” where he sings about all the crazy adventures when he’s “on that juice.”
Brown is such a controversial presence that he has become the pop sensation many love to hate. But his critics discount his star power at their peril. “Deuces,” which began his unexpected comeback after his Graffiti flop, remains one of the great R&B singles of the 2010s. This year, he has scored Top-40 hits with “Ayo,” Meek Mill’s “All Eyes on You” and Pitbull’s “Fun.” Royalty hasn’t generated any singles of note yet, although “Liquor” made a bit of noise earlier in this year. You’d be hard-pressed to find an urban radio station that doesn’t spin Brown’s songs in its rotation.
As for his legacy, the youthful Brown shouldn’t have much to worry about. However, every release since “Deuces” and its subsequent F.A.M.E. has sounded like variations on a formula. He’s the bad boy who’s really wounded inside. We get that. For all its highs and lows, Royalty doesn’t stem the tide of diminishing returns.