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Tough Love

Learning to tolerate Chris Brown and embrace the Dirty Projectors.

Chris Brown

Fortune is Chris Brown’s fifth, supposedly final (though c’mon, not really) studio album, and it might very well mark the point where even his most ardent haters finally decide that he’s no longer worth their contempt. It’s not that Fortune is a great (or even particularly good) record, or that Brown is suddenly a decent (or even tolerable) person. On the second track, an opportunistic bit of bubblegum dubstep called “Bassline,” Brown declares, “I’m winning, you heard about my image, but I could give a flying motherfuck who’s offended.” There are 16 words in that statement, and at least one lie, but the “I’m winning” part is absolutely true. Fortune is the follow-up to 2011’s F.A.M.E., winner of the Grammy award for Best R&B album, and a winner on the charts, too, with five Top 5 singles on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart to its credit. Last Sunday at the BET Awards, Brown won again, for Best R&B artist and, for the third year in a row, the viewer’s choice Fandemonium award. Fandemonium, indeed.

At this point, if you’re so inclined, hating Chris Brown isn’t so much about The Incident From Three Years Ago, but about how The Incident From Three Years Ago (and the subsequent public shaming campaign that’s been periodically refueled by Brown’s less egregious but still off-putting acts of obnoxiousness since) failed to eradicate him from the pop-music sphere. Yes, this is plenty maddening if you happen to take a brave and unorthodox stand against jerkoffs committing violence against women. But it’s worth recognizing that continuing to be pissed off by his very existence plays right into Brown’s hands.

There are millions of people who will always despise Chris Brown and his music on principle, and they have every right (and plenty of justification) to feel that way. But rather than hurt his career, these people have been cast in a narrative, constructed by Brown and his enablers, where they stand as an oppressive barrier between an underdog hero and his adoring audience. No matter his role in creating (or even necessitating) that barrier, Brown’s last three albums tell a story about overcoming his supposed “hardships” and reigning supreme as a misguidedly confident, supremely deluded, intermittently reflective, and dispiritingly prolific-in-the-bedroom pop star. Fortune concludes the trilogy; it’s the “game over” record. He’s not winning, he’s won. The question is: What now?

First, a recap: The story got off to rocky start on 2009’s Graffiti, released 10 months after The Incident, which unwisely (but perhaps inevitably) dwelled on the media fallout and career damage that Brown was forced to inconveniently endure for much of the year. (In one of the album’s more infamous lyrics, Brown complains, “Even though I’m so damaged, I gotta pick myself up and perform for the crowd.” Oh, the burden of being the asshole who gave Rihanna a black eye.) Graffiti, which tanked commercially and was treated by critics like Tyler Perry’s The Newsroom starring Whitney Cummings, came out during the most precarious period in Brown’s career, when radio stations were dropping him from their playlists and the media was treating him like Ike Turner 2.0. Sullen petulance was just about the worst look possible.

Another good-looking, charismatic louse with a fucked-up view of women once said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Brown did it right in the title of F.A.M.E., short for “Forgiving All My Enemies.” Somehow, Brown flipped the script, turning the righteous hordes condemning him for repeatedly striking one of the world’s most famous pop stars in the face into a persecutory mob that wasn’t acting “fairly.” In the breakout single “Deuces” (originally released on the Fan of a Fan mixtape), Brown describes an unnamed woman as a “vulture” that’s “always hopin’ for the worst” and “waiting for me to fuck up.” It was classic (if not clichéd) “blame the victim” abuser language, but the song’s “enough already” message resonated with fans that were ready to welcome Brown back to urban radio from extended exile. Brown was also boosted by his show-stopping performance at the 2010 BET Awards, when he broke down during his (admittedly thrilling) tribute to Michael Jackson and was unable to sing “Man in the Mirror” through dubious tears.

As provocative works of theater are prone to do, the performance inspired a range of responses that could broadly be grouped into two camps: Brown was either a monster cynically using Jackson’s spirit for his own ends, or a sympathetic figure effectively using Jackson’s spirit for his own ends. The former response was independent from the latter, but the latter response was very much intertwined with the former; Brown needed his doubters for his comeback story to have legs. With their help, he was on his way.

Listening to Fortune, the part in “Bassline” about not giving “a flying motherfuck who’s offended” is obviously not true, as Brown’s recent career has relied on the protests (real and imagined) from a faceless “offended” to give his pedestrian music a dose of intensity and resonance. Which is why Fortune is, for the most part, neither intense nor resonant; in spite of the remix of Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake,” on which he appeared, and the trumped-up feud with Drake, and the halfhearted “retirement” announcement at this year’s BET Awards, Brown has been essentially de-fanged. The haters can no longer make him inaccessible; like it or not, we’re stuck with him and his many hits, playing on a loop, for the foreseeable future.

There’s one song on Fortune called “Don’t Judge Me” that seems like a deliberate attempt to troll his critics. But musically it’s lukewarm milk, a light ballad about reassuring a prospective lover that “it could get ugly before it gets beautiful.” In reality, Brown has defied all judgments. Now he faces a tougher, more staid opponent: his own lack of a discernible artistic point of view.

Fortune is mostly pretty safe stuff, split roughly 60/40 between lightweight trifles like the dopey Europop singles “Turn Up the Music” and “Don’t Wake Me Up” and garish and laugh-out-loud sex romps where Brown charitably offers up his penis as the greatest gift to womankind since the 19th Amendment. “Tonight is the night I change your life,” he promises in “Sweet Love”; “You’re my biggest fan, girl, I want you to holla,” he declares in “Biggest Fan”; “We’re gonna do it like it’s about to be the end of the world,” he pledges in “2012,” following up with a gentlemanly offer to get “that pillow for your knees right here.”

If you can divorce the music from any feelings you might have about Brown’s past, Fortune is a solidly competent R&B pop record. It’s not the best thing ever, nor the worst. It’s totally and completely OK. At this point, indifference is more productive. I’m convinced this is how Chris Brown will end: not with a furiously shaken fist, but with a noncommittal shrug. We can’t shrug him off fast enough.

Not long after Brown plopped Graffiti into pop’s porcelain bowl, a far smaller tempest raged in the pages of the Village Voice. At issue was the song “Stillness Is the Move” by the brainy Brooklyn art-rock group Dirty Projectors, and a different kind of inauthenticity. What for Chris Brown was an issue of heart and conscience was, for Dirty Projectors, a matter of intent and cultural proximity.

“Stillness” was 2009’s glitchy car-stereo jam of choice for indie kids, with a blobby bottom end, a ringtone guitar hook, and ecstatic vocal undulations courtesy of the group’s singer-guitarist Amber Coffman that were likened more than a few times to Mariah Carey. It was the breakout track from Bitte Orca, one of four rapturously received indie rock records released that year indebted in some way to contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B sounds. Along with the icy, minimalist robo-soul of The xx’s “Crystalised,” the dance-floor tribalism of Animal Collective’s “My Girls,” and the doo-wop harmonies and clipped piano chords nicked from Dr. Dre on Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” “Stillness” cinched the divide between indie rock and pop now and forever.

And yet as the most classically R&B-inspired sounding song of the bunch, “Stillness” left itself open to criticism when, in the Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop singles poll of music critics, it finished higher than any of the year’s “real” R&B songs. Writer Maura Johnston noted that “Stillness” did well “among those disinclined to trifle themselves with” the year’s most distinguished R&B releases, like “Maxwell’s electric comeback album BLACKsummers’night (which nearly went platinum) or The-Dream’s sometimes jaw-dropping Love vs. Money, both packing songs that wiped the floor with ‘Stillness.'”

The implication was obvious, for the audience and Dirty Projectors. But this distrust of “Stillness Is the Move” wasn’t just a matter of David Longstreth’s pasty complexion or his privileged background as a boarding school-reared, Yale-educated New York City indie dude. Speaking as someone who was slow to warm to Bitte Orca, Longstreth’s conceptual tourism is “smart” and “daring” in all of the usual commendable ways, but it can leave your soul feeling a little undernourished. As you might expect from a guy who had previously engineered meisterwerks “inspired” by Don Henley and Black Flag that sounded nothing like Don Henley or Black Flag, Bitte Orca is intellectually impressive and emotionally a little distant.

Dirty Projectors’ latest, Swing Lo Magellan, might disappoint those hung up on the torrent of unlikely juxtapositions that reverberated through Bitte Orca. Longstreth has described Magellan as “an album of songs,” a phrase that knowingly hints at a “back to basics” approach to old-school (in this case, ’60s- and ’70s-era) songwriting. The reference points are as clear and passed-down as any budding 13-year-old classic rock fan’s iTunes playlist: late-period Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Paul Simon’s first few solo records. In the process, Longstreth has tamed the free-jazz skronk of his guitar and his penchant for cramming five ideas into spaces where one would suffice. While not as pared-down as the wheezing and rattling bone machine that is Fiona Apple’s great The Idler Wheel …, Magellan is as melodically direct and rhythmically in-the-pocket as Orca was fidgety and exploratory. Longstreth’s search for new combinations of sound and fury has been suspended; he’s now in search of what you humans call feeling.

If that turns off Bitte Orca backers, so be it. Magellan is warmer and roomier; it invites you to move in and stick around for a while. You could even call Magellan accessible, though only in the relative sense. The title track is an affecting two and a half minutes of lilting folk-pop, with a subtly tricky but never showy beat from drummer Mike Johnson, who mostly hangs back here. (His tut-tut tapping perfectly complements the resplendent Carole King piano melody of “Impregnable Question.”) The album’s sweetest track, “Dance for You,” is a little soft-shoe routine that skitters in and out like a doodle left off of McCartney II. The gurgling “About to Die” isn’t far removed from the feel-good ganja punk-funk of Check Your Head, but look out for “Just From Chevron,” which starts out as a pretty VU/Nico song before melting into a puddle of splattering King Sunny Adé guitar and assorted crazy rhythms.

Longstreth was once saddled with the burden of representing, in the words of a 2009 New York profile, “something important, the antidote to the mainstream takeover of alternative culture.” For anyone who believes that there’s still such a thing as a separate “alternative culture,” Swing Lo Magellan might be seen as a capitulation. Dirty Projectors’ contribution to the 2012 summer jam sweepstakes, the slow-building boho-gospel tune “Gun Has No Trigger,” is nobody’s idea of innovation. It just sits there and breathes in and out, urging you to breathe along with it. “Trigger” isn’t intended to blows minds; it enters your consciousness and makes you feel like it’s always been there. In my mind, at least, that’s the stuff of true progress. Let Chris Brown be beholden to his narrative; Longstreth and Dirty Projectors are breaking free of theirs.