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Isn’t he just an Usher wannabe?
This is a pretty contentious start to a User Guide, but Breezy’s no more beholden to Usher than any other male R&B singer whose career started after 2004. And anyway, Usher’s something to aspire to! A singer and dancer who’s spent a decade dominating R&B, hip-hop and pop radio, with an enviable string of hits and a name that’s become synonymous with pitching woo—we’re pretty sure we all want to be Usher. Brown’s vocals are more silky smooth, his dance style is more athletic, and even before 2009 (we’ll get to it), his affect was much more that of a volatile bad boy. Even in the video for “Run It!,” his first single and pretty much a direct photocopy of Usher’s “Yeah!,” he glowers and swaggers way more than the eternally composed Mr. Raymond ever has.
Isn’t he just a Michael Jackson wannabe?
Okay, that one hits a little closer to home. There’s no question that Brown’s dance style is, to put it mildly, reminiscent of the late King of Pop’s—but then, whose isn’t? Brown’s certainly not as ambitious as Jackson was at his age, but then, he doesn’t have the high-pressure early training that Jackson did in his family and in the Motown factory. Brown was born in Tappahannock, Virginia, a small town not far from Richmond, to working-class parents and taught himself to sing and dance. He was discovered at his father’s gas station by producers who were passing through town. In fact, a lot of his career has been based on luck rather than discipline. (Foreshadowing!)
Isn’t he just a pretty voice?
Well, let’s be up front: He sure does have a pretty voice. Or at least he can—like a lot of modern entertainers, he’s good at modulating his voice (whether naturally or electronically) to fit whatever mood the song is aiming at. Compare the overdone pressure of “Say Goodbye” (sung when he was 16) to the plausibly tender soulfulness of “With You," only two years later but much more thoughtful and precise. He’s not only a solid singer, with a liquid tonality and ability to pull off runs that a lot of better-experienced singers would hesitate to attempt, but he’s a sharp and inventive dancer, with an athleticism that’s only somewhat exaggerated in his lighter-than-air music videos. And beginning with his second album, 2007’s Exclusive, he’s been credited as co-writer on the majority of his songs, and he’s written songs for other performers as well, notably Rihanna with “Disturbia.” (Dun dun dunnnnnn!)
Isn’t he just lucky in his collaborators?
Well, that’s kind of how modern pop works. Cynics can call it luck, but most collaborators worth anything would tell you that they don’t work with people who can’t bring the goods. Brown certainly wasn’t hurt by collaborating with T-Pain on “Kiss Kiss” at the 2007 peak of T-Pain’s AutoTuned popularity, and when a year later he duetted with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks on “No Air,” it cemented his position as a reliable provider of both dancefloor-ready tracks and smooth, ballads.
Isn’t he just a corporate shill?
Let us guess; you’re talking about “Forever." Yeah, it was originally written as an updated “urban” jingle for Wrigley’s, but it’s become so much more, and the line “double your pleasure, double your fun” is now just as much associated with Midwesterners dancing down the aisle as it is with any particular brand. “Forever” is probably Brown’s highest point as a performer, as a songwriter and as a maker of ecstatic dance music; with its disco beat and AutoTune pushing his voice to be even more liquid and chirpy than it is naturally, it’s one of the great dance songs of the last decade.
Isn’t he just an abuser?
Here we go. Yes, Chris Brown physically assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in February 2009. He turned himself into the police, was charged with felony assault and making criminal threats, and at his June arraignment pled guilty and was sentenced to community labor, domestic violence counseling and five years’ probation. All this is a matter of public record, and he’s talked about it in interviews, apologizing several times. It’s worth noticing that his apologies have rarely been as graceful or precise as his dancing.
Isn’t he just a whiny, unrepentant brat?
Unrepentant? We’re not able to look into hearts at Popdust, so all we have to go on are public actions. His first single—and, disappointingly, his first hit—after the contretemps was “Deuces,” on which he and guest rappers Tyga and Kevin McCall had a lot to say about lying women, including veiled threats. Obviously, pop songs aren’t biography, but that’s tactless at best and parole-breaking recidivism at worst. His frequent public losses of control—from breaking down while performing at a Michael Jackson tribute to storming off the Good Morning America set shirtlessly and property-damagingly—suggest that he’s not the most stable guy, and his Twitter and YouTube diatribes against haters are (again, we’re understating it) not exactly calculated to win anyone over.
Isn’t he just a victim of the haters?
Count us skeptical of the cultural narrative surrounding the concept of “haters.” We’re not dumb—we’re on the Internet, we know how people are—but it’s usually as much a convenient excuse for anyone from pop stars to reality-show contestants to act selfishly and aggressively as it is genuine pushback against destructive criticism. Count us as bigger fans of Chris Brown when he ignores the haters, as on the moderately ecstatic “Yeah 3x,” than when he snaps back at them, as on “Look at Me Now,” where his attempts at rapping are only made more embarrassing by the fact that his guests are Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Sure, some people are never going to forgive him for beating Rihanna; and that’s fine. Nobody needs to. (Just so we’re clear: violence against women is NEVER OKAY.) And sure, there’s plenty of Angry Black Man stereotyping in the rush to condemn him for every appearance in a news feed. (Just so we’re clear: race-based assumptions are NEVER OKAY.) But he’s made great music before, and you can color us cautiously hopeful that he will one day again. Also that he stays out of trouble and, if necessary, gets help.
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